My colleague Michael Gerson recounts the clobbering Jeb Bush recently took on his visit to Washington when he gave the “we have to find common ground” spiel and went after Grover Norquist. Bush is right but unhelpful, as were Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels when they publicly lectured Mitt Romney to be “bold.”
All of these statements are instantly converted by the chattering class into evidence of intra-party warfare. Forgetting the substance of what they say, the articles become Bush vs. Grover Norquist or Walker vs. Romney. And frankly, however well-meaning, the voices come across as sanctimonious. (Wow — be bold! Who knew? Find a way to lower the debt. Really?!)
In their public admonitions, they repeat and reinforce the problems: They don’t specifically tell what they’d do differently. What about Romney’s policies isn’t “bold” enough — the tax plan, the Ryan-Wyden Medicare plan, the Medicaid reform? You got me. And while Bush rightly dinged the president for ignoring Simpson-Bowles, does he want Simpson-Bowles to be the model for compromise on debt reduction? I dunno.
When you raise objections about lack of specificity, the retort is something like, “I’m just trying to start the conversation” or “I’m not advocating one particular plan.” Well, we’ve been having the debate for some time now, and it you’re going to criticize others for either insufficient boldness or insufficient flexibility, it seems only fair to set the example.
There is another more productive model for getting us from procrastination to consensus. Follow the model of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He put out his debt-reduction proposal — years ago and in writing — telling what he thought the debt problem was and what he’d recommend to fix it. He then gathered support, got his ideas pushed through the House in the form of a budget and helped by example and quiet persuasion to push his party in the same direction.
In my recent conversation with him, it was clear that he’s immensely pleased with the way the debate on debt reduction and entitlement reform has panned out on the right. He wants more of the same, or “turn up the volume,” as he put it. That should encourage Mitt Romney and House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates to do the same — embrace the mantle of conservative reform.
Had Ryan spent the past five years bellyaching that no one was “bold” enough or “flexible” enough, he, the party and the country would be no better off than we were in 2007, when he spotted the fiscal train wreck coming down the path.
If Bush, Daniels and Walker want to be helpful and not simply grab headlines, they would be wise to exhort in public and counsel in private, as Ryan has done. Most critically, they need to make the case to Republicans that they can’t hide from debt and entitlement-reform issues.
Democrats are trumpeting Democrat Ron Barber’s victory this week in a special House election outside Tucson as a “referendum on Republicans’ policy on cutting Medicare and privatizing Social Security.” “Every incumbent Republican” holds the same “vulnerabilities” on entitlements, explained a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee memo. . .
But [Barber’s Republican opponent Jesse Kelly] botched the entitlement debate, starting in the 2010 race. While Kelly endorsed Paul Ryan’s sensible budget reforms, he struggled to explain said entitlement reforms. He rambled to the Tucson Weekly in 2009 that he’d “love to eliminate” Social Security, which apparently meant letting people “opt in and opt out of it,” or to “privatize it.” He’d later describe Medicare as a “Ponzi scheme” and talk of the urgent need to “reform it, to privatize it, to phase it out.” Which exactly? Mr. Kelly didn’t say.
The lesson, Strassel argues, is that Republicans are going to get bludgeoned by Mediscare arguments, so don’t shy from the fight and, in fact, carry the fight to the Democrats, who have been irresponsible in the extreme.
So if Bush, Daniels and Walker want to be productive, they can either offer and push their own ideas or tout aspects of the Romney-Ryan plan (they are the same, actually), laying the groundwork for future legislation and educating the public. That is how you advance an agenda and avoid playing into the media circus. And between you and me, Ryan has shown that that is the surest route to elevating your profile and getting recognition as a serious leader.