You knew it was going to be vintage Paul Ryan when he bounded on the stage carrying his own charts. “I carry them around in my truck,” he said with a grin to the reporters sitting up front. At an event sponsored by e21, a free-market think tank, the Wisconsin Republican answered questions for 45 minutes, first from Fred Barnes and then from the audience. Pete Wehner of e21 noted in his introduction that Ryan had “smoked out the president, who had been something of a bystander” in the debate on the most critical issue of our time.
Ryan smartly chose a conservational setting, giving him the chance to demonstrate that he is entirely in command of his subject matter and not afraid to engage and respond to all manner of inquiry.
The first question was the shortest. Did he think the continuing resolution would pass? “I think so!” he said cheerily. And that’s the thing about Ryan: He is cheery, calm and without rancor. His voice never showed a trace of anger or annoyance, although his message was a tough one.
What did he expect and what did he get from the president’s speech? He responded that he “expected an olive branch” and some “details and specifics.” From conversations with Democratic colleagues, Ryan said, “I thought he’d offer some details on Social Security.” He and two colleagues from the debt commission “went with a little bit of optimism. Instead we got front-row seats to the president’s reelection speech.” When he first introduced his budget, he said, “I knew we’d get a lot of partisan attacks. We didn’t expect it from the commander in chief.” He chided the president for bringing “himself down to the political mosh pit” of hyper-partisanship.
He noted that President Obama said last year he would address the fiscal crisis, then appointed a debt commission and disavowed its report. Ryan said, “We thought he’d go back to it. Now he wants another commission, the Biden commission” in which he again wants to delegate to other people the hard work of getting our fiscal house in order. Did it damage the chances for a grand bargain? “It definitely damages them.”
In a calm and measured voice Ryan explained that the president’s game was to paint Republicans in “cartoon terms.” He recalled that the president came to a Republican gathering in Baltimore in 2010 to make an appeal for reasoned debate. “Yesterday we got the opposite of what he said we needed,” Ryan said. He noted wryly that perhaps they should have been clued in when the White House sent a campaign manager and not the budget director or the Treasury secretary to the Sunday talk shows. What we got, he said, was “a speech, not at a plan.” He called the Congressional Budget Office to ask for the data. “CBO referred me to the White House press secretary.”
Much of the president’s rhetoric was simply untrue. Ryan said the president had dismissed the Republicans’ plan for “cutting” taxes on the wealthy. This is simply wrong. “We don’t include his tax increases. We keep revenues where they are and reform the tax code along the lines of the debt commission.” He explained that broadening the base and taking away loopholes will at least get the wealthy to pay tax on more of their income. “Right now they aren’t paying any taxes on money they shelter,” he observed.
Barnes asked, “Where do we go from here?” Ryan said simply, “I think he’s basically putting all his chips on his reelection.” Perhaps they can get a “down payment” on the debt ceiling “must-pass” vote, but Ryan wasn’t optimistic the Senate would even pass a budget.
Then he whipped out his charts and essentially decimated the president’s arguments. He said that 20 cents of every dollar is used to pay for the government. If Obama’s budget is passed and followed, Ryan said his children would have to pay 40 cents of every dollar. “The president,” Ryan said, “is saying it is ‘crazy’ to keep that at 20 percent.”
Would his plan break the social compact, as Obama claimed? “That statement says that America can no longer be the way it was,” Ryan said. Obama’s message is: “‘Stick with me, America, and I will give you security. And if you go with these Republicans they are going to feed you to the wolves.’ That’s a false choice,” Ryan said.
“The president gives us one new idea,” Ryan conceded — to delegate more power to 15 unelected people who will ration care and set price controls.
Did he talk to the president and the vice president yesterday? “No.” Will he join the new Biden commission? “Don’t know. . . . I just don’t know. Why don’t we just do our jobs?”
He also debunked the idea that he wanted to destroy entitlement programs. He made a pass at unraveling Obama’s wild claims about his plan’s impact on seniors. But the essence of his approach, he said (sorry, libertarians), was to save the welfare state. “We believe you need to have a social safety net. We think there is a consensus on that.” He wants to allow those programs to function, but to make sure we are a “paycheck nation,” not one promoting dependency. Rather than wait for the debt crisis to arrive, as it has in Europe, where draconian cuts are immediately implemented, Ryan said, “If you do it now and fix this problem, we do it on our own terms.”
Would he like to discuss the budget one on one with Obama? He said with a smile: “I just don’t think that’s how the White House works.”
He explained that the president’s analysis that the debt was caused by two wars and the Bush tax cuts was wrong. The debt problem has been a long time in the making. “The big drivers are entitlement programs,” he said, and he readily acknowledged that “both parties are to blame.” He isn’t gloomy, however. He said with characteristic optimism, “People know this country is in trouble. They feel this in their guts.” He doesn’t think the president helped himself: “We don’t need a campaigner in chief.”
In the questioning period he provided a few news tidbits. He said the Republican House whip thinks the vote on his 2012 budget is “one of the better-looking whip counts.” He also explained what Obama’s fail-safe is all about. “If you exempt 65-70 percent of the budget,” when you go beyond the caps you get “massive taxes.”
He was also blunt on whether Obama could balance the budget in 10 (or 12) years without taxing the middle class: “It’s not mathematically possible to not tax EVERYBODY.” According to the CBO, Obama’s spending spree would eventually require that the 10 percent bracket go to 25 percent; the middle bracket go to 63 percent, and top bracket go to 88 percent. Ryan also reiterated that the media (most liberal pundits, I think) were wrong about his reliance on a Heritage Foundation model. His plan uses CBO figures only; the Heritage analysis looks at job growth.
After the event attendees expressed the view that Ryan is the most impressive voice for the Republicans. For now, it’s best that he’s not in campaign mode. But come the fall, his party and, not to be overly dramatic about it, the moment may require that he run for president.