The Ryan budget and the austerity argument within the GOP

March 21, 2013

For the third time in the last three years, the Republican-controlled House today will vote in favor of a budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that, by anyone's calculation, prizes austerity.


Wisconsin Congressman and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. AP Photo

Few -- if any -- House Republicans will vote against the Ryan budget (Four Republicans voted "no" in 2011; 10 voted "no" in 2012.) But, increasingly there is a debate within the GOP about whether pushing austerity and a relentless focus on the bottom line is the right policy and political path for the party.

"By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our country is on the phony economy of Washington, instead of the real economy out here in Charlotte and Shreveport and Cheyenne," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who, like Ryan, is mentioned as a 2016 presidential candidate, said in a speech before the Republican National Committee in January. He added: "A debate about which party can better manage the federal government is a very small and short-sighted debate."

Jindal, his advisers argue, is not saying that Ryan's plan to limit federal spending is a bad thing -- rather that the focus needs to be first and foremost on how Republicans can grow the economy rather than shrink the government.

As Jindal has cautioned against strictly underscoring a message of austerity, others have raised questions about the philosophical underpinnings of the Ryan budget.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who praised the first and second editions of Ryan's budget, was critical of version 3.0, writing:

"Modest deficits are perfectly compatible with fiscal responsibility, and restructuring the biggest drivers of our long-term debt is a much more important conservative goal than holding revenues and outlays equal in the year 2023. What’s more, the quest for perfect balance leaves the House G.O.P. officially committed to a weird, all-pain version of Obamanomics — in which, for instance, we keep the president’s tax increases and Medicare cuts while eliminating his health care law’s assistance to the uninsured."

And National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru got in on the act, writing in Bloomberg View:

"The choices that Ryan made have kept Republicans unified but also reinforced the impression that they are too attuned to the interests of the rich, and more concerned with their own obsessions than what the public wants. House Republicans are in danger of becoming like the House Democrats of the early 1980s: secure and comfortable in their power base, and not oriented toward achieving a governing majority."

At the heart of this issue is the absolutist strain that exists within the party -- particularly in the House. Elected primarily in 2010 in a tea party wave that was fueled by a promise to cut, cut, cut, a substantial portion of the GOP conference sees shrinking federal spending and eliminating the budget deficit as not just a goal but the goal.

For politicians with their eyes on bigger prizes than simply winning reelection to a House seat, however, pledging fealty to austerity over all other priorities may well be a very limiting proposition.

A look at 2012 exit polling bears out that debt reduction alone isn't a winning strategy for Republicans. Just 15 percent of the electorate said the deficit was the most important issue facing the country, while 59 percent said the state of the economy mattered most. And, even on the deficit, Republicans lacked a clear edge; 49 percent of voters said they trusted Mitt Romney more to handle it, while 47 percent named President Obama.

To win -- in 2014 but especially in 2016 -- Republicans must go beyond simply touting the need to curb spending. They also must find ways to emphasize where the nation's economy can grow. It's a both/and proposition that simply focusing on austerity doesn't solve.

Fixbits:

The Senate passed a stopgap funding measure.

Larry Grooms conceded. At first, his campaign tried to suggest he hadn't.

Colorado Gov John Hickenlooper (D) signed strict new gun laws.

The DSCC outraised the NRSC nearly 2-1 last month.

Georgia Democratic Rep. John Barrow is looking at a Senate run.

Attorney Nick Preservati (D) may run for the Senate in West Virginia.

Ben Carson said running for office is "not something that is at the top of my agenda."

Whatever happened to the Tea Party Caucus?

Even Obama has car trouble sometimes.

Must-reads:

"Obama and Netanyahu show unusual solidarity" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Mark Sanford faces family-values contrast in runoff" -- Alex Isenstadt, Politico

"New York Governor Favors Easing Newly Passed Gun Law" -- Thomas Kaplan and Danny Hakim, New York Times

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Sean Sullivan · March 20, 2013