Let me explain. Right now Washington is obsessed with the sequester and the blame game and the “continuing resolution” and the next debt-ceiling showdown. And not without reason. Heck, the president is canceling White House tours, so things are tough all over.
But Paul Ryan’s new budget, slated to be unveiled next week, will alter the debate in ways no one has prepared for.
To be sure, I expect Ryan’s new blueprint to be another exercise in faith-based budgeting, a duplicitous document that pretends once more that taxes don’t need to rise as the baby boomers retire and we double the number of people on Social Security and Medicare (though Ryan will quietly bank Obama’s recent tax hikes on top earners). It will thus rely on magic asterisks while ravaging government, save for programs serving seniors and defense.
But – and this a big “but” – Ryan’s plan will call for the budget to be balanced in 10 years.
This new goal is a game-changer. Until now, Ryan’s plans have been regressive, phony blueprints that also mocked all notions of prudence by not reaching balance for three decades. Though he managed to fool the press and even many arbiters of budget sanity into thinking otherwise, Ryan’s plans were never fiscally conservative.
Next week, Ryan’s plan will still be regressive and phony. But if early reports are correct, it will show on paper a path to balance in 10 years. No matter how magic the asterisks and specious the assumptions, the embrace of this goal will transform the debate.
Why? Because even as Democrats attack Ryan’s plans along familiar lines – critiques the press has heard for years now and will find boring – they will be forced to respond to what’s new here. Are Democrats in favor of balancing the budget or not? If not, why not? You mean never? And if so, by when?
This is exactly the dilemma Clinton faced in 1995. After Democrats were walloped in the historic GOP sweep of 1994, Gingrich led his troops to offer a plan to balance the budget in seven years. In the face of this assault on his fiscal chops, Clinton wavered. Part of him wanted no part of such a goal. After all, in his original 1993 economic package he’d made some tough, responsible choices to get the deficit under control (including tax hikes on the top 2 percent), and voters had rebuffed him in the midterms. Let the GOP do the heavy lifting for a while, he and his political advisers thought.
At the same time, Clinton’s economic advisers told him that balancing the budget in anything less than 10 years would tank the economy (as it turned out, the budget was balanced a few years later and the economy boomed, proving that presidents – and all of us — need to take economists’ advice with a hefty dose of doubt).