The GOP's
The GOP’s “ideas man.” (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In an interview on Morning Joe today, Paul Ryan, projecting his usual seriousness and existential deficit angst, lamented that President Obama’s new budget moves so far to the left that he fears compromise will be impossible.

And yet, in the same interview, Ryan also drew a line against conceding any new revenues in the form of closing loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy, and even better, confirmed that his forthcoming budget will contain the Medicare Advantage cuts that Republicans have been attacking Democrats over for three years.

Watch the whole thing. First Ryan laments the additional spending in Obama’s budget: “That isn’t really an attempt to bridge the gap and find common ground. He’s just moving farther to the left…he’s not trying to move to the middle.” It’s true that Obama’s budget does call for billions in new spending to boost the economy and break austerity’s grip on the recovery. It’s also true that liberals are supportive of that.

But when Ryan derides this as a failure to search for “common ground,” he’s implicitly defining seeking “common ground” as “not asking for anything more in spending for any Democratic priorities.” Because Obama’s budget does seek some common ground. It proposes an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The general underlying policy idea, as a way to help the working poor, has drawn the support from Republicans like Marco Rubio, as well as from conservatives. But Obama wants to pay for the expansion by closing loopholes on the wealthy and corporations.

Asked on Morning Joe whether he could support this — indeed, asked whether Republicans could make any concessions on revenues — Ryan cited GOP Rep. Dave Camp’s recent tax reform proposal, and said:

“It closes loopholes. But instead of using the money for spending, which increases the deficit in the out years…we’re saying take those loophole closures and use it to lower tax rates to grow the economy….that’s the kind of economics that we think we ought to have. Not raise taxes so that Washington can spend more.”

But in this scenario, “Washington” would be “spending more” on a policy goal some Republicans and conservatives support. What’s more, even if you grant that immediate deficit reduction should be the goal, the “middle” position is to accomplish that in part by raising taxes.

Worse, when Sam Stein asked Ryan directly whether his forthcoming budget would contain the Medicare Advantage cuts that Republicans have previously voted for and continue to attack Dems over — and whether those cuts would be put towards deficit reduction, as in previous budgets — Ryan said:

“We have put things in our budget to address the Medicare Advantage problem — reserve funds to fix Medicare Advantage, and  we’ve also put some of that money from the Medicare cuts that pay for Obamacare back into the Medicare Advantage system…you’ll see us address that in our budget like we have in each of the last few years.”

For the third straight cycle, Republicans have been attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare to pay for Obamacare. When presented with the fact that Republicans have voted for the same cuts, they tend to argue that they would not use that money to pay for Obamacare. But as Brian Beutler has explained, this is really irrelevant: the same cuts to Medicare Advantage will have the same impact, whether or not those savings are spent on Obamacare. Ryan vaguely alludes to putting this money back into the program, but until there is an actual proposal, it’s hard to gauge what this even means.

If his budget does do this, those savings presumably wouldn’t finance deficit reduction. The upshot would be that Republicans are trying to argue that they wouldn’t cut Medicare benefits, while Dems are doing just that — even as Ryan still insists he would balance the budget. All of this together leads back to the larger problem here. As Jonathan Chait puts it:

The bigger dilemma is that Ryan’s budget goals leave him no room to maneuver. He’s committed to balancing the budget within the next decade. But he wants to prop up defense spending, refuses to increase tax revenue, and has promised to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits for all current retirees. He recently cut a deal with Democrats to ease cuts in the main domestic spending programs. Having taken everything else off the table, the only place left for his cuts is programs that benefit the poor.

Ryan has simultaneously embarked on a campaign to prove Republicans care deeply about poverty. The only way to square this circle is to argue that cutting programs for the poor is the way to help them. Ryan is genuinely skilled at making all of this sound eminently reasonable, even as the underlying ideological priorities on display are by any sensible measure much farther removed from “the middle” — not to mention from mathematical reality – than anything Obama has proposed.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.