Republicans have chosen Rep. Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, to respond to the president's State of the Union address tonight. In the civility intermission that has followed the assassination attempt against Rep. Gabby Giffords just outside Tucson, Ryan will no doubt be respectful, and sorrowful that he must dissent from the president's course. Don't be fooled.
Ryan is an Ayn Rand-quoting zealot, one of the Republican Party's self-styled "Young Guns." He's spent his adult life inside the Beltway, on the political right, with no experience in the world of business, labor, the executive branch or the private sector. Incubated in a right-wing think tank, writing speeches for Jack Kemp and William Bennett, he was elected to Congress at age 28. Ryan became the most loyal of loyal foot soldiers in the Congress presided over by Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert, a fact Ryan now glosses over as he describes those Congresses as "corrupt."
Ryan has been dubbed a Republican "thinker" by national reporters desperate to find someone they can praise in a party that was extreme before the Tea Partyers came to town. But, in fact, his rhetoric is a barely varnished echo of the ravings of Glenn Beck. He accuses Obama of a "treacherous plan," saying that Democrats have a "hardcore-left agenda," and claims that Democrats are steering the country "very far left, very fast" - a direction he describes as "completely antithetical to what this country is about."
This sort of rhetoric, once scorned as sophomoric at best, is now common currency on the Republican right. While Ryan will be careful to avoid such language in the GOP response to the State of the Union, he'll reveal his ideological zealotry in the policies he will propose.
Most of those policies will come from Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future," a budget manifesto published last year that The Post's Ezra Klein aptly described as "nothing short of violent."
In a nation where the top 1 percent already captures 25 percent of the nation's income and possesses more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, the roadmap would give the richest households a new round of staggering tax cuts. It would reduce tax rates, eliminate taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest, and abolish the corporate tax, the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax.
The respected Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, drawing on estimates of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, concluded that the average tax cut for the top 1 percent of the population (with incomes over $633,000) would be $280,000. The richest one-tenth of one percent, who had incomes over $2.9 million in 2009, would pocket a handsome $1.7 million a year in tax breaks.
Some of this revenue would be replaced by a value-added tax that would raise the cost of every good Americans buy, ensuring that middle-income people would pay far more in taxes than they do now. Some would be made up by drastic cuts in health-care spending. Ryan's giveaway to the rich would also drive up federal deficits and debt.
Understanding the purpose of the "roadmap" is key to understanding Ryan. When he speaks of "fiscal responsibility," what he really means is that middle-class and working Americans will shoulder the responsibility of tackling debts and deficits, while multinational corporations and financial institutions will reap the benefits of favorable government policies and taxpayer-funded bailouts.
His plan would unravel employer-based health care by ending the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance. It would eliminate traditional Medicare, eviscerate Medicaid, and terminate the Children's Health Insurance Program. These would be replaced by a voucher system designed to lose value over time. Ryan would also use "price indexing" to slash average Social Security benefits by 16 percent for those retiring in 2050 and 28 percent in 2080.
As head of the House Budget Committee - accorded what House Speaker John Boehner calls "stunning and unprecedented" power to shape the budget - Ryan is leading the GOP's charge to cut $100 billion out of "non-security discretionary spending" this year - requiring cuts of 20 percent in everything from the FBI to cancer research, Pell grants for students, Head Start and grants to public school districts. This is a recipe, given the country's faltering growth, for increasing unemployment and misery.
Ryan, of course, refuses to identify which programs would be cut, or how deep the damage would be. "I'm a budgeteer," Ryan says. "I just bring down the cap" - an utterly irresponsible description of budgeting, which is entirely a question of choosing priorities.
As a career politician steeped in the art of "framing" a poll-tested, focus-grouped message to make it palatable, Ryan will no doubt sound reasonable, invoking basic American values, promising that jobs, growth and opportunity will result if only we adopt his priorities. But don't just listen to State of the Union platitudes. Consider the record and the proposed policies. Beneath that shock of unruly hair is an ideologue with extreme notions that, if adopted, would endanger our future, and leave most Americans far worse off.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.