The massive debt racked up by Paul Ryan’s phony “fiscally conservative” blueprint leaves President Obama a huge opportunity to change the debate in his speech this Wednesday. As can never be said enough, Ryan’s plan (even allowing for its dubious assumptions about Medicare savings) doesn’t balance the budget until the 2030s, racks up $5.7 trillion in fresh debt in the next decade and $14 trillion between now and when balance is finally reached.
What Obama should say is that America can’t afford to wait a generation, as Republicans want to do, to balance the budget. He should mock that Republican goal as preposterous and reckless, and say it exposes the party’s supposed fiscal conservativism as a fraud. Obama should say, so long as unemployment comes down to more normal levels, we should get to balance by 2018, and if the Republicans weren’t so busy defending the Bush tax cuts, we could absolutely do this. And he can sketch the outlines of a plan with a balanced blend of spending cuts and tax increases that would be enacted now, but which would click in only once unemployment is under 7 or 6 percent. The political world would be stunned, financial markets would cheer and the president would have regained the initiative.
The temptation, of course, is for the White House to come at Ryan and the GOP mainly from the left, demagoguing their plan to “cut” Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the top. This is the predictable line, and it surely will poll well. But it won’t durably win back the independents Obama needs. It won’t surprise the press and the pundits, who’ll call it the "same old, same old." And besides, as Obama knows, the country desperately needs to slow Medicare’s growth (even if not exactly as Paul Ryan would do it), so why keep poisoning that well? The shrewder, debate-transforming move would be to outflank the GOP on the right with a much faster call for balance. We’ll find out Wednesday if the president has the imagination to seize the opportunity Ryan has inadvertently handed him.