Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has put the Republican Party on the side of Medicaid and Medicare reform. But the biggest and perhaps most costly entitlement plan of them all, Obamacare, remains the law of the land, at least for now. In a conference room in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill, I asked Ryan if the Republicans needed to be prepare to offer an alternative, especially given that the Supreme Court could well overturn all or part of the legislation. He immediately answered, “Yes.” But although he has described in some detail his own health-care bill, he tells me, “ I don’t know that it has to be all Republicans on the same bill. We should continue to articulate a vision for patient-centered health care. But if we have 10 bills, that’s great!”
Liberals’ answer to a potential invalidation of Obamacare is simple: Adopt a single payer system. When I ask if that could even pass in a Democratic-controlled Senate he looks incredulous. “Well, the [House] progressive caucus wants a single- payer system,”he says. Ryan observes that many liberals have hoped all along that Obamacare would just grease the skids for a single-payer system. In their view, employers would dump their private coverage, sending most Americans into the exchanges where a few big insurers would be like highly regulated “public utilities in effect.” But Ryan sees a brighter alternative.
He jokes, “Every time it gets really dark, I see light.” In this case he argues his optimism is warranted. He contends that Obamacare and the prospect of something even worse has “opened up room”to considered a patient-centered system that would move us from a third-party payer system (e.g. employers, Medicaid, Medicare pay for insurance) to one in which consumers can shop for insurance. With the possible Supreme Court ruling invalidating all or some of Obamacare, the cost of Obamacare coming to light and the unpopularity of President Obama’s health-care legislation, Ryan says, “The planets are aligning better than ever before for patient-centered health care.”
On the broader topic of entitlement reform, Ryan says he is with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who insists voters are ready to hear hard truths. Ryan says, “This election is about having an adult conversation with adults of this country to elect an adult to fix this country.” (It’s probably too long for a bumper sticker, but the Romney campaign might want to take notes.) He remains confident that the president’s scare tactics and hyper-partisan rhetoric won’t bamboozle the voters. “I don’t think they’ll be duped. I think they’re ready” to hear hard truths, he says.
I also ask Ryan about immigration reform. This was a topic on which he spent considerable time in years past, working with Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on Republican versions of immigration reform. He says simply, “Immigration is a good thing for our country.” However, he adds, “we have to have an immigration system which works and where the laws are adhered to.” As a tactical matter he has an interesting observation: “If you have on massive bill, too many groups will [get together] to oppose it.” He favors what he calls “sequencing,” a series of bills that deal with the border, identity theft and employment verification, and the “thorny” problem of illegal immigrants currently here. He shies away from offering particulars, saying with a laugh, “I’ll let Marco Rubio take care of that.” He is joking, but his observation is a keen one. Not only Republican lawmakers but the presidential nominee to a large extent are waiting on what the freshman senator from Florida has to say on the subject.
As for the presidential election, he says that his state of Wisconsin is definitely a swing state. “And boy does it swing!” he adds. In 2008 Obama carried the state, and in 2010 Republicans won the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races and picked up House seats. The prospect that Gov. Scott Walker will survive his recall is reason for optimism, he argues. He reminds me, “George Bush lost the state twice by 1/2 of one point.”
As for the presidential race in general, Ryan declares himself optimistic.” He says, “The race is a Ronald Reagan kind of race. It’s a Ronald Reagan kind of time.” By that he means the incumbent president seems devoid of ideas and the economy is in the doldrums. Through the primary Ryan pushed the candidates to be specific on entitlement reform and other policy matters. He dutifully argues, “Mitt Romney’s not only giving an uplifting message. . . he is offering specific solutions.” He dubs that a “fantastic juxtaposition” to a president who is overly negative and offering no specifics. Ryan’s message is clear: Romney has good ideas, but it is “a vision for the future on how to accomplish” his goals that is essential.
The GOP has come a long way from squabbling over whether the House should offer Medicare reform in the absence of presidential leadership. Much of the credit goes to Ryan, who in 2007 in the Bush presidency recognized “the debt crisis on the horizon,” as he puts it. He explains, “We had to change the center of gravity of the party. [Charles] Krauthammer coined the phrase, ‘Decline is a choice.’” That meant to Ryan that Republicans had to move from “offering platitudes” to giving the country “specific, coherent” reform plans.
Not only did the House eventually follow course, but for the first time in memory a Republican nominee has spelled out proposals on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare reform. In some sense, the GOP has become Ryan’s party.
Talking to Ryan one can’t help but notice his irrepressible cheeriness. He laughs. “I am a Jack Kemp kind of guy,” he says referencing one of his mentors who was known for his sunny outlook. He observes, “There is a lot of anxiety, angst and frustration out there. But you have to get through that.” He adds, “I’m happy. I’m excited. These [conservative reform] solutions are right around the corner.”
But, of course, that requires that Romney win the White House. If not by putting Ryan on the ticket, Romney’s chances would certainly improve if he adopted Ryan’s happy demeanor and embraced his passion for specific policies.