The budgets that Ryan has written have achieved a status close to dogma among conservatives, calling for a dramatic reordering of fiscal priorities and the scope of government. Democrats, meanwhile, believe the Ryan plan is a major liability for Republicans by alienating elderly and moderate voters.
His proposals contain three major elements:
First, the Ryan plan would overhaul the entitlement programs that have grown to consume about 40 percent of the budget, reshaping Medicare coverage for the elderly, and cutting deeply into Medicaid, food stamps and other programs for the poor.
Second, he would rewrite the tax code, slashing the rates paid by corporations and the wealthy.
Finally, Ryan would cut spending on other federal programs and agencies, with the exception of the Pentagon.
Most controversial is Ryan’s proposal to transform Medicare so that the government, rather than paying for health care for the elderly directly, would give beneficiaries a set amount of money to shop for a private health insurance plan.
Last year, working with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Ryan tweaked the idea to add an option in which the elderly could remain in the traditional Medicare program, but they would have to pay significantly more for that coverage if it turns out to be more expensive than private plans.
The politics of dealing with entitlements for the elderly have long been treacherous. That is why senior Republicans — while hailing Ryan for fresh, bold and creative thinking — initially maintained some distance from the particulars of the plan he first put forward in 2009, when he was the budget committee’s ranking Republican in a chamber controlled by the Democrats.
When the Washington Post-ABC News poll asked last year whether respondents would favor changing the Medicare program along the lines of the Ryan-written House budget, opinion tilted sharply negative. Only 32 percent supported it, while 49 percent were opposed.
As recently as last year, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, launching his own bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, branded the Ryan budget “right-wing social engineering.”
Gingrich quickly apologized in the face of a backlash by conservatives, among whom Ryan had become a hero. Ryan’s ideas have become so dominant within the House that when his fiscal 2013 budget was put to a vote in March, only 10 Republicans opposed it.
On Saturday, shortly after Ryan’s selection was announced, Gingrich issued a statement hailing it as “a courageous choice for a BIG solutions election. Paul Ryan is the largest step the GOP has taken towards solving the country’s problems since [former President Ronald] Reagan and [former Rep. Jack] Kemp,” both icons of the tax-cutting “supply side” school of economics.