Ryan is the kind of politician I fundamentally like. He’s smart, policy-oriented and willing to take political risks — but only, it turns out, of a certain kind. His budget puts Republicans at risk by yoking them to a plan to privatize Medicare, slash Medicaid and cut taxes on the wealthy. Which is to say, it puts Republicans at risk by pulling them very far to the right. But there are no risks of apostasy here. Nothing like Obama pushing Democrats on an individual mandate he had once opposed and a slew of cuts and reforms to Medicare. Nothing like George H.W. Bush agreeing to raise taxes as part of a budget deal. Nothing that might anger people to his right, as opposed to those to his left.
It’s not as if Ryan lacked for candidates. Even one high-profile break with conservative orthodoxy would’ve had a protective effect. Imagine if Ryan had said, as Tom Coburn has, that balancing the budget means “my taxes are going to go up.” Forget the fact that raising taxes is an obvious and inevitable element of a budget deal. Proposing it would’ve been politically masterful. It would’ve given Ryan cover for reforms like medicare privatization, which are, both from an ideological and fiscal point of view, more important. In the absence of any such attempt to share the sacrifice, however, Ryan’s left us with little more than a conservative wish list backed by some very funny numbers. Since I don’t like most of Ryan’s proposed reform, perhaps I should be happy about that. But I’m not. It’s disappointing to see so much political talent lashed to Grover Norquist’s policy agenda.
As for the agenda itself, it’s perhaps most notable for how little it has evolved in recent years. After the financial crisis, the cost of Medicaid and food stamps skyrocketed — and not because food or medicine had become more expensive. Costs skyrocketed because millions lost their jobs and needed help. Without the federal government bearing some of that burden, the states would’ve collapsed under the new demand. And yet Ryan’s budget dusts off an idea Republicans had in the ’90s that to make the federal contribution to Medicaid and food stamps dependent not on need but on a formula tied to the rate of inflation. If this plan had been in place in 2007, the results, both for the states and the people who relied on these programs, would’ve been catastrophic.
Ryan’s budget also looks to repeal the financial-regulation and health-reform laws without offering any replacements. Perhaps Republicans simply don’t believe covering the uninsured is very important. I disagree, but so be it. Can they also truly believe that financial regulation is not very important? That the system we had in place in 2007 was sufficient? It’s not merely that the GOP hasn’t learned anything over the course of the crisis, but that they appear to have unlearned some things.
For all that, Ryan’s proposal would matter less if Democrats and the White House had done more. The truth is they left this space open for him to occupy. Excuses can be made, of course. Democrats did pass a health-care law that substantially cut costs across the system, and it’s notable that Ryan, who spent a long time denouncing the law’s savings as unrealistic, included them in his budget. Nevertheless, the idea that health-care reform was entitlement reform didn’t stick. And in their State of the Union, the White House decided to accept the idea that the deficit was a top priority — but they didn’t propose any compelling policies for dealing with it.
Indeed, Obama has, in recent months, been the sort of politician I don’t like: cautious on policy, unwilling to take political risks, more dependent on good messages than good bills. “Win the future” could’ve been yoked to a real agenda for what this country’s economy should look like going forward, an agenda of scope similar to Simpson and Bowles’ recommendations and Ryan’s budget. It wasn’t. And so now Ryan gets to set the parameters of the debate. He won’t achieve all of what he wants, or even much of it. But he’ll get partway there. And, for both him and the GOP, it’ll likely have been worth the risk.