Tea Partying House Republicans recently went into revolt over the largest cuts in government spending in decades. Why? Despite their size, the cuts in spending that Rep. Paul Ryan proposed for the rest of fiscal year 2011 didn’t appear to meet the Republican campaign pledge to shave $100 billion from the budget. The unexpected fury drove the GOP leadership back to the drawing board last week, where they redesigned the continuing resolution that will fund the government through October 1.

But here’s the question: Given that the initial cuts brought such a dramatic reaction from the freshman class, what will happen if House Republicans ignore entitlements in their 2012 budget plan?

The answer is plain: A GOP budget that said nothing about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would send the conservative street into an uproar. And for good reason. A Republican House that failed to address these main drivers of America’s deficit would look like a con.

That doesn’t mean the GOP House has to relitigate the 2005 fight over personal accounts, or shut down the government if President Obama refuses to accept Paul Ryan’s plan for Medicare. What it means is Republicans have an opportunity to stake out a position in the inevitable debate over the American welfare state. They have a chance to begin a public education campaign on the necessity and feasibility of reform now versus austerity later. This is an occasion where Republicans actually could govern according to conservative principles. It’d be an awful shame if they blew it.

Leave aside the self-evident absurdity of a limited-government party that turns a blind eye to the overwhelming bulk of government expenditures. Opinion polls and the political dangers that accompany any discussion of entitlements have persuaded some conservatives that the GOP can afford to wait another two (four? six?) years to reveal its plans for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They’re wrong.

It’s true the polls show no great hunger for cuts in entitlement spending. But that’s precisely the point. Tackling these programs now would not only prevent the coming fiscal crisis, it would diminish the chances of punishing cuts in benefits for current retirees. Change America’s bad spending habits soon, and people in or close to retirement can enjoy the benefits promised to them. That won’t be the case forever.

The public, moreover, is likelier to approve of an adult discussion about fiscal responsibility today than a bond-market-imposed, slash-and-burn austerity tomorrow. Americans are likelier to reward politicians who level with them than those who cavil and hide behind the other party’s inaction.

It’s also true that the Democrats will demagogue any Republican proposal to make entitlements fiscally sustainable. But the Democrats always say Republicans want to kick Grandma out into the cold—so why not be ready with an actual proposal, with facts and figures and graphs and charts, to expose such falsehoods? Why not seize the initiative and call the Democrats’ bluff, pointing out that they have no answer to America’s fiscal crisis other than massive tax hikes? Republicans are already being attacked for significant cuts in domestic discretionary spending, and so it would look silly not to go where the real money is. Better to be attacked for boldness and courage than exposed as timid and cynical.

The dangers of entitlement politics are overstated in any case. The Democrats have been on the offensive relentlessly since Paul Ryan debuted the first version of his Roadmap for America’s Future in 2008. But their misrepresentations have failed to unseat Ryan—or prevent the election of dozens of Republican congressmen and senators who are fond of or intrigued by or committed to entitlement reform.

The third rail of politics is not what it used to be. Like the rails in the Washington Metro, it’s old and poorly maintained and prone to malfunction. The openness to serious changes in the American welfare state at the grassroots, state, and federal levels is like nothing we’ve seen in a long time. Beginning the hard work of reform now would lay the groundwork for removing the obstacle in the White House in 2012.

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