They want to kill the New Deal just as much as we want to save it.
It's lately become a truism of sorts in progressive circles that conservatives don't really care about anything but keeping taxes low for rich people. I agree that it is a prime directive, but I'm not convinced that it's the only thing they care about. They have a very deep antipathy toward government for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they believe it takes their money and gives it to people they dislike. (The fact that they benefit as well is irrelevant --- they believe they deserve it, those "others" don't.)
Anyway, I think Ed Kilgore is right on the money about this:
The problem here isn’t so much that conservatives value “entitlement reform” less than they claim (vis a vis holding the line on taxes for the wealthy): it’s that conservatives only consider major benefit cuts and structural changes in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security “entitlement reform.” When the administration talks about major long-term reductions in Medicare and Medicaid spending via major government-driven changes in how health care is delivered and how much is paid, conservatives go “la-la-la-la can’t hear you.”
For some perhaps that’s because they don’t believe government can actually execute cost containment via its purchasing power without major reductions in the quality of care. But for others it’s because the point isn’t to save money, it’s to shrink government, and the “immoral” dependence on it that middle-class entitlements symbolize.
There’s an interesting middle ground of proposals that cut benefits but don’t change the basic structure of the entitlements. They include ideas like “chained CPI,” adjustments in the retirement age, and greater means-testing that the president has hinted he might accept in a really “grand” bargain. I get the impression conservatives are a bit conflicted on the value of these kind of benefit cuts: they’re not the sort of root-and-branch change or wholesale privatization they want, but have the value of “breaking the seal” on entitlement reform and giving bipartisan cover to much more radical proposals from the Right.
The bottom line, though, is that your average conservative is as focused on breaking down the New Deal/Great Society safety net as your average progressive is in maintaining it more or less exactly as it is. In this struggle, money is a talking point, but not the actual center of the argument.
Wondering about how this fits into their historical patterns, I asked Rick Perlstein about it the other day. He agreed with Kilgore that they are confused and I think that's right. They are being offered things they should, by all rights, be thrilled to take. But they are afraid that by taking the president up on his offers to "reform entitlements" they'll lose the bigger argument. They're probably wrong about that --- degrading the social insurance programs will make them less reliable and less popular. But they aren't willing to take that risk. And I, for one, am grateful.