For the third straight year, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan unveiled a budget proposal outlining his -- and Republicans' -- vision for government. And, for the third straight year, that budget has set off a fierce debate within his own party about whether it is smart or dumb politics.
Those in the "smart" camp insist that outlining what Republican governance would look like is absolutely essential to re-vivifying a party that has struggled to win national elections in recent years. It is a defining document of principle, they insist, a sign that the Republican party has a core set of beliefs.
"Parties have to stand for something," insisted Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole. "In this generation restoring our fiscal balance and preserving the private sector have become that type of core issues to Republicans."
On the other side of the argument are the pure political heads who see the Ryan budget as folly -- a document that both has no chance of becoming law and will immediately becomes a shooting gallery for Democrats seeking to paint the GOP as extremists who want to destroy the social safety net. (That process is already happening as Ryan takes considerable heat for assuming the repeal of President Obama's health care law, which ain't happening, in his budget.)
Said one senior GOP operative granted anonymity to speak candidly regarding the Ryan budget: "House Republicans continue to put out proposals that give the party as a whole a black eye, but are destined to go nowhere.....We can't continue to appear to be so extreme, and hope that voters are just going to buy it. Paul is a smart guy, and yes this is what has to happen – but the voters aren't there."
So, which is it? Is the Ryan budget a necessary and fundamental pillar in the rebuilding of the Republican party or a poison pill destined to keep the party in permanent minority status?
That depends a bit on where you stand.
What's obvious is that the Ryan budget was a seminal moment for the Republican base during President Obama's first term. It gave them an intellectual flag to rally around, a new leader to look to and, most importantly, a way to answer the attack that the GOP was simply the party of "no". It got Republicans excited about being Republicans again -- a passion evidenced in enthusiasm within the base and on the fundraising circuit.
If you need evidence of how much the Ryan plan mattered to the activist base of the party, look no further than the fact that the Wisconsin Republican, who was an unknown four years ago, wound up on the GOP's national ticket as Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012. Without the Ryan plan, there is approximately a zero percent chance that Romney and his team would have decided to pick a House member from Wisconsin as his running mate.
The politics beyond the Republican base are much murkier, however.
Democrats have insisted for the last several years that the Ryan budget -- and, specifically, the plan's re-imagining of Medicare -- was their ace in the hole when it came to winning back (or retaining) control of Congress.
Results were somewhat mixed. Senate Democrats note that the issue of eliminating Medicare -- if not the Ryan budget in particular -- came up in a number of competitive races in 2012, often to great effect for their side. They also point out that national Republicans spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads touting GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg's opposition to the Ryan plan. (Rehberg lost.)
And yet, predictions -- like the one made by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) -- that the Ryan budget would hand House control back to Democrats in 2012 didn't happen.
"Like many Democrats, I thought [the Ryan budget] would be a bigger factor in last year's election," said Brendan Daly, a former senior aide to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "But the Republicans were able to muddy the water on Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare by accusing President Obama of cutting Medicare."
Added Tom Cole: "Did we lose any race because of the Ryan budget? Has any other item so united the Republican Party, which has been pretty fractious of late? Do you think we will lose ground due to the Ryan budget in 2014?"
As we begin round 3 of the Ryan budget battle then it's worth remembering what the previous two rounds have taught us. The Ryan budget is a good thing for Paul Ryan and for the GOP base. We're not ready to call it bad politics for the rest of the party but there are, without doubt, political challenges inherent in putting out a detailed budget document that will never become law.
And, in the midst of trying to decide whether the Ryan budget is a good or bad thing politically, it's also worth preserving a third option -- that it is neither. The mixed results from the 2012 election suggest the Ryan budget may be neither side's silver bullet to victory.