If you want to understand why the budget debate so infuriates people who actually care about deficits — and, in particular, people who actually care about health-care spending — consider this: The central health-care reform in Paul Ryan’s budget, the one that’s got him so many plaudits for courage, would actually increase costs. The health-care reform that progressives have been pursuing for more than two years would cut them. And yet calling for Medicare to be privatized and voucherized is considered serious, while calling for a public option is considered tiresome.
Making this more irksome, Paul Ryan’s plan as written has as much chance of passing as the public option does.
This goes back to a problem that’s afflicted this debate ever since Ryan began getting plaudits for fiscal seriousness and deficit hawkery — which, not incidentally, began to happen well before he unveiled his proposals. The problem is that the meaning of the term “defict hawk” is largely arbitrary.
As I noted some time ago, the term “deficit hawk,” as it’s commonly used in Beltway discourse, simply doesn’t mean “someone who fully committed to reducing the deficit by any means necessary, even if it means tax hikes and — paradoxically enough -- new government programs.” Rather, it means “someone who is fully committed to reducing the deficit through tax cuts, entitlement reform and an unswerving adherence to general hostility towards expansive government.”
The public option isn’t considered “fiscally hawkish” for the same reason proposed tax hikes on the rich aren’t considered “fiscally hawkish,” even though they would downsize the deficit in a big way. Expanding government involvement, or redistributing the tax burden upwards, smacks of soft, bleeding-heart, big government liberal squishiness. In terms of tone, such talk simply doesn’t sound “hawkish.” Talk of cutting and slashing and quasi-privatizing does sound hard and tough and “hawkish.”
I know that sounds glib. But imagine if everyone who used the term “deficit hawk” agreed that it should refer only to those want to reduce the deficit by any means necessary, with nothing at all taken off the table. The conversation would start to sound very different, wouldn’t it?