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Pork to entitlements

Another path back to prominence may be pork-barrel spending, one of Mr. McCain’s favorite hobbyhorses.

All fiscal experts agree that the pork-barrel spending that has so infuriated voters - such as Republican Sen. Ted Stevens’ $320 million “bridge to nowhere” - is not the most important issue in the long-term budget picture.

Eliminating all earmarks would eliminate only about $18 billion from the federal budget, which in 2009 will total at least $3.4 trillion.

And while earmarks total about $18 billion, the main three entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare - together cost about $1.5 trillion in 2008.

Entitlements consumed 8.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2007 and are projected to eat up about 18 percent of GDP by 2050, which is the portion of the total economy traditionally consumed by the entire federal budget.

The tidal wave of 77 million retiring baby boomers entering a system with just 42 million retirees in it is behind the coming unsustainability of the entitlements program.

“Any first-grader can tell you these numbers don’t add up,” said Patrick Creadon, a documentary filmmaker whose new film, “I.O.U.S.A.,” tells the tale of America’s dire fiscal picture.

But many Republican strategists believe most voters won’t be roused over the mounting budget numbers in the trillions or by the even bigger numbers behind entitlements.

The numbers make their eyes glaze over, they say.

“Voters don’t vote on aggregate spending numbers. They just don’t. It’s too big,” Mr. Norquist said. “People vote on things that touch them.”

Yet many who are irate over pork-barrel spending could form a constituency that may begin to care about the issue of government growth and long-term entitlement insolvency, conservatives say.

In short, Mr. Norquist said, pork may be the issue that puts spending, and thereby entitlements, on the list of voters’ priorities.

“The reason [pork] has become such a big issue is that it’s insulting,” Mr. Norquist said. “It’s dissing voters: ‘You’re an idiot. We’re going to treat you like an idiot. We take your money and spend it in stupid ways, and you can’t do anything about it, and nobody cares what you think.’ ”

“That’s insulting. That can become a vote-moving issue,” he said. “Taxes are a vote-moving issue. Spend[ing] too much isn’t a vote-moving issue, yet. Spend in insulting and degrading ways, like a bridge to nowhere … that can be a vote-moving issue.”

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