You get the sense listening to the usual GOP suspects object to a budget deal that cuts more spending, restores some defense dollars and begins to address entitlement spending that they are going through the motions.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as he did in the shutdown and on Syria, mouths the talking points of the far right, ignoring political realities and disappointing pro-defense allies he tried to woo with his European trip. With each of these incidents, he cements the impression of political immaturity.
The outside right-wing groups demand a “no” vote, suggesting they are still mining their donors for more money.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pipes up with his usual level of inaccuracy, claiming that it “does nothing to reduce our nation’s $17.3 trillion debt.” Of course, it cuts about $20 billion more in spending than did the old sequester.
What has changed, however, is the forcefulness of mainstream conservatives. In public, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to indulge the cranks claiming this was a bad deal, saying at a morning press conference that the usual cast of outside right-wing groups are “using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals…. This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.”
Senior GOP aides present at the GOP confab that preceded Boehner’s press conference were cautiously optimistic. Bohner’s communications director, Kevin Smith, e-mailed, “Chairman Ryan made a compelling case about why this budget agreement deserves every member’s vote. If you support reducing the deficit, you should support this agreement.” Other leadership aides authorized only to speak on background described the reaction as “positive.” One aide suggested that the gang that says positive things publicly about leadership but has voted with the crazies when it comes to things like the shutdown may support the deal this time around. Others were excessively cautious, insisting that it is too soon to tell how things will shake out. Outside of leadership, some GOP members predicted that the deal will gain a solid majority of the conference.
What explains all this? Several factors figure in. First, the battle against Obamacare is going so well even hard-liners understand the GOP must keep the focus on Democrats’ largest weakness. Second, the shutdown fiasco has sapped the far right of credibility and support. They’ve lost the ability to instill fear in their colleagues. Third, leadership smartly did not oversell the deal, characterizing it as “modest” but positive for conservatives. Fourth, conservative opinion makers are nearly uniformly in favor of the deal. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which had strongly cautioned against fiddling with the sequester, wrote:
Perhaps the best conceptual precedent is that the deal trades discretionary spending increases for entitlement reforms, albeit small. Heretofore the Democrats have insisted on tax increases to offset any entitlement changes. The changes are modest because Democrats refuse to budge on Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security that are the biggest drivers of future liabilities. Americans are going to have to elect a GOP Senate in 2014 and a new President if they want to solve those problems.
But Mr. Ryan was able to negotiate a significant change to the pensions of federal government workers and the military. This will save $12 billion over 10 years, $6 billion each from civilians and the military, and much more over time. These savings are genuine because they result from a change in law that won’t expire, not a promise of future changes that everyone knows will never happen.
And finally, just as President George W. Bush used highly respected Gen. David Petraeus to convince Congress to stick with the Iraq surge at a critical time, House leadership deployed the most credible figure they have: Ryan. He’s managed to be a consistent voice for sanity and smart budget deals while keeping the support of his colleagues, some of whom might wander into crazy land without his guidance. Part of this is his history with colleagues and part is his ability to frame budget details in terms of conservative principles.
This will, no doubt, increase the buzz about a Ryan presidential run in 2016. As far as I can tell from conversations with him and close advisers, he truly has not decided yet whether to pursue that or to head in the direction of the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship. In either role, he would be pressed upon to forge alliances between moderates and reasoned conservatives without inflaming the hard-liners (and even possibly earning their respect and support). Conventional wisdom at this point leans toward an outside-the-Beltway governor for the nominee, but if anyone in Congress can win the nominee, it could well be Ryan, who unlike the other GOP presidential contenders can claim to have actually accomplished something. If this budget passes, it will cement his stature as the fiscal alternative to Obamaism.