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Posted at 12:53 PM ET, 08/14/2012

Paul Ryan: More trouble than he’s worth?

There are four pieces you should read to get a clearer understanding of Rep. Paul Ryan, his legislative history, the Medicare battle with President Obama and just what people (read Republicans) think of it all. The portrait that emerges is a whole lot different than the aww-shucks, up-from-nerdom narrative of late. Ryan is an inspired choice that doesn’t impress as many people as you’d think.  

First, read “The legendary Paul Ryan,” written by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine back in April. “The persistent belief in the existence of an authentic, deficit hawk Ryan not only sweeps aside the ugly particulars of his agenda, it also ignores, well, pretty much everything he has done in his entire career, and pretty much everything he has said until about two years ago,” he notes before exposing the fallacy that is Ryan’s reputation as a minder of the national deficit.

In 2001, Ryan led a coterie of conservatives who complained that George W. Bush’s $1.2 trillion tax cut was too small, and too focused on the middle class. In 2003, he lobbied Republicans to pass Bush’s deficit-­financed prescription-drug benefit, which bestowed huge profits on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. In 2005, when Bush campaigned to introduce private accounts into Social Security, Ryan fervently crusaded for the concept. He was the sponsor in the House of a bill to create new private accounts funded entirely by borrowing, with no benefit cuts. Ryan’s plan was so staggeringly profligate, entailing more than $2 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, that even the Bush administration opposed it as “irresponsible.”
When Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 elections, they reimposed a budget rule requiring that any new spending or tax cuts be offset by new revenue or spending cuts. Ryan opposed it, preferring to let new spending or tax cuts go on the national credit card. Instead, he continued to endorse Bush’s line that tax cuts were leading us to a glorious new era of prosperity and budget balance. “Higher revenues flowing into the Treasury, as a result of economic and job growth, have given us a real chance to balance the budget,” Ryan announced in 2007. “The president’s budget achieves the important goal of balancing the budget in the near term — without raising taxes,” he wrote in August 2008.
Since Obama took office, Ryan has changed his position on the value of economic stimulus. In 2001, and again in February 2008, he (along with nearly everybody in both parties) endorsed temporary tax cuts in the face of economic downturns. He has since embraced hoary, previously obscure Austrian economic doctrines that warn against putting too much money back in the pockets of citizens suffering through a recession.

On the question of Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as we know it, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had an effective retort. “There’s only one president that I know of in history that robbed Medicare, $716 billion to pay for a new risky program of his own that we call Obamacare,” he said on “60 Minutes.” Leave it to Ezra Klein to get at the truth of the matter.

I’ve got a modest proposal: You’re not allowed to demand a “serious conversation” over Medicare unless you can answer these three questions:
1) Mitt Romney says that “unlike the current president who has cut Medicare funding by $700 billion. We will preserve and protect Medicare.” What happens to those cuts in the Ryan budget?
2) What is the growth rate of Medicare under the Ryan budget?
3) What is the growth rate of Medicare under the Obama budget?
The answers to these questions are, in order, “it keeps them,” “GDP+0.5%,” and “GDP+0.5%.”
Let’s be very clear on what that means: Ryan’s budget — which Romney has endorsed — keeps Obama’s cuts to Medicare, and both Ryan and Obama envision the same long-term spending path for Medicare. The difference between the two campaigns is not in how much they cut Medicare, but in how they cut Medicare.

And to be doubly clear, both sides are talking about cutting the growth in Medicare spending.

All the profiles of Ryan note his full embrace of supply-side economics. So, I was surprised to see David Stockman, Mr. Supply Side himself, blasting Ryan to smithereens on the New York Times op-ed page today.

Mr. Ryan’s sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to “job creators” (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation’s economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse....
Mr. Ryan showed his conservative mettle in 2008 when he folded like a lawn chair on the auto bailout and the Wall Street bailout. But the greater hypocrisy is his phony “plan” to solve the entitlements mess by deferring changes to social insurance by at least a decade.
A true agenda to reform the welfare state would require a sweeping, income-based eligibility test, which would reduce or eliminate social insurance benefits for millions of affluent retirees. Without it, there is no math that can avoid giant tax increases or vast new borrowing. Yet the supposedly courageous Ryan plan would not cut one dime over the next decade from the $1.3 trillion-per-year cost of Social Security and Medicare.
Instead, it shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Shifting more Medicaid costs to the states will be mere make-believe if federal financing is drastically cut.

The fire coming from Stockman is akin to that coming from Republicans behind the scenes. Politico reports that the fret level within the GOP political class is high over the selection of Ryan as Romney’s running mate.

They’re worried about inviting Medicare — usually death for Republicans — into the campaign. They’re worried it sidetracks the jobs issue. They’re worried he’ll expose the fact that Romney doesn’t have a budget plan. Most of all, they’re worried that Romney was on track to lose anyway — and now that feels all but certain....

And as a piece from Buzzfeed makes clear, the blame if defeat befalls the Romney-Ryan ticket will fall squarely on the top of the ticket. At first, it was impressive that the such an important and bold (yes, I said it) choice was made by Romney himself. But when you read that not one of his advisers was for the Ryan selection, you can’t help but think that all of the Beltway hand-wringing isn’t far off the mark.

“Everybody was against [Ryan] to start with only Romney for,” said one top Republican, who is skeptical of the choice....

Ryan still has time to impress wary Republicans and an electorate that doesn’t know him — or doesn’t like what it does know about him. But we’re already seeing signs that the honeymoon period is giving way to a nightmare. Yesterday in senior-vote-rich Florida, Romney was already ducking questions about where he disagrees with his running mate’s budget.

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Let the fretting continue.

By  |  12:53 PM ET, 08/14/2012

Tags:  Election 2012, Paul Ryan

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