In poker a “tell” is the physical giveaway or tic that lets you know someone is lying about his or her hand. In politics it’s the mode of evasion a politician chooses to sidestep a truth he or she doesn’t want to admit or to avoid saying something against self-interest. In his debut interview with Fox News’ Brit Hume Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan’s “tells” were audacious and revealing. They suggest an opening Democrats would be wise to pursue.
Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to cloak himself in his supposedly charming “wonky-ness” to sidestep two simple questions from Hume: When does Mitt Romney’s budget reach balance, and when does Ryan’s own budget plan do the same? Ryan pirouetted because Hume’s queries threatened to expose his famed “fiscal conservatism” as a fraud.
It’s worth parsing Ryan’s tactics in this exchange because it shows the brand of disingenuousness we’re dealing with. So let’s go to the videotape. Have a look at the relevant two-minute portion of the clip (excerpted on this CNN video) and then we’ll dissect it.
Okay, you’re back. Hume started with a simple question: “The budget plan that you’re now supporting would get to balance when?”
Now, for context, recall that in the last era of epic budget smackdowns, 1995 and 1996, Newt Gingrich would have had an equally simple answer: in seven years. President Bill Clinton’s failure to embrace the goal of a balanced budget at all was a major political liability that Clinton finally (and shrewdly) erased when he came out with his own 10-year plan in mid-1995. (It’s worth underscoring that a 10-year path to balance was viewed then as the outer limit of credibility — pledging to end the red ink any further than a decade out didn’t pass the laugh test.)
Since Ryan knows that Romney’s bare sketch of a plan never reaches balance, he stumbles momentarily before trying to move the conversation to his comfortable talking points about Romney’s goal of reducing spending to historic norms as a share of gross domestic product.
But Hume grows quietly impatient. He practically cuts Ryan off.
“I get that,” Hume says. “But what about balance?”
You can see Ryan flinch. He doesn’t know, he says. Why not? “I don’t want to get wonky on you,” he says, recovering, “because we haven’t run the numbers on that specific plan.” But that’s not “getting wonky” at all. As common sense (and the Gingrich/Clinton approach) suggests, there’s nothing arcane about this subject. You decide on a sensible path to balance as a goal and come up with policies that achieve it. All this means is that Romney hasn’t done what a fiscally conservative leader would do. Trying to evade this as a matter of not “getting wonky” is Ryan’s tell. He’s betting Hume is too dumb, uninterested or short on time to press the point.
Ryan then adds that “the plan that we’ve offered in the House balances the budget.” But he immediately stops short of saying when — you see his eyes dart to the right at that moment, his next tell — because that would mean admitting it reaches balance in the 2030s. And Ryan wants to get through this interview without saying that, because he knows it doesn’t sound good. After all, what kind of “fiscal conservative” has a 25-year plan to balance the budget? Instead, in a practiced maneuver signaled by his telltale sideways glance, he moves to a contrast with President Obama, who he says has never offered a budget that ever reaches balance.
This is true — but is a plan to balance the budget when Ryan is nearly 70 really different enough to make Ryan the “deficit hawk”? Please.
Meanwhile, Hume’s quiet baritone presses on.
“Your own budget . . . when does that contemplate reaching balance?” Hume asks.
There’s no exit. Not until the 2030s, Ryan finally admits, looking uncomfortable — but then he quickly adds, making a face, that’s only under the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring rules, implying that they’re silly constraints every Fox News viewer would agree are ridiculous (instead of sensible rules meant to credit politicians only for policy proposals that are real). Ryan adds that “we believe” if we get the economy growing, “it would balance in 10 years.” But that’s supply-side faith-based budgeting again — exactly what we ran an empirical test on in the 1980s. (And the truth is, if Ryan’s big tax cuts were properly accounted for, his plan’s real date of balance would push well beyond 2040).
Why am I harping on this? Because it’s impossible to overstate how central the unjustified label of “fiscal conservative” is to the Ryan brand and the GOP’s strategy. As Clinton understood in the 1990s, “fiscal responsibility” is a values issue important to the voters who decide modern presidential elections.
The point: Democrats can’t afford to let Ryan/Romney’s phony image as superior fiscal stewards survive. And Hume’s interview shows how swiftly this charade can be exposed if Democrats and the press zero in on simple questions like Hume’s. If the press is primed to cover this more intelligently, such queries will also expose the big Republican lie — the idea that you can balance the budget as the baby boomers age without taxes rising.
Let me be clear. The most important issue facing the country isn’t when we’re going to balance the budget. It’s how to get growth and jobs reignited in the near term and how to renew the country’s promise and competitiveness after that (an agenda in which long-term budget sanity is just the ante). But if Democrats spend all their energy on Medicare — and don’t knock out the GOP ticket’s undeserved reputation for fiscal responsibility — they’ll find themselves in unexpected peril as the race heads to the fall.