The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The latest Republican budget is a revival of Paul Ryan-ism. The GOP will have to do better.

Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan listens as President Trump speaks at the White House in November 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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There has been a lot of talk recently about the Republican Party searching for a post-Trump ideological future. The annual alternative budget released Wednesday by the 152-member House Republican Study Committee shows how difficult it will be for the party to square its old, entitlement-cutting mind-set with its newer, populist faction.

The document is essentially an update of former House speaker Paul Ryan’s 2008 “Roadmap for America’s Future,” a libertarian-inspired vision of what the federal government would do if taxes were never raised. The Republican Study Committee sets out to balance the federal budget through spending cuts alone and keep it balanced well into the future. The result is a dramatic reduction in what the federal government does across the board.

The proposal’s most notable features are its changes to the major entitlement programs most Americans rely on in old age. The age at which one receives full Social Security benefits would go up to 69 by 2030, from a planned rise to 67 in 2022. Medicare’s eligibility age would rise from 65 to 69. Combined, these increases would likely keep many aging Americans in the workforce for years more than they expect or desire.

Medicare’s structure would also be thoroughly transformed. Instead of a guaranteed government set of policies, the RSC budget would instead provide a subsidy for premiums that could be used for any insurance plan, including a new “Fed Plan” that would replace traditional Medicare. The subsidy would be based on income, wealth and health status, and every senior would then be responsible for buying their own plan and paying for any difference between the federal subsidy and that plan’s premium from their own pocket. Many, if not most, retirees would pay more for their health insurance than they do now.

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Millions of Americans who get health insurance through Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program or the Obamacare exchanges could also see dramatic changes. All of these programs would be block-granted to states, meaning the program’s funding mechanism would be changed so that the federal government pays each state one lump sum each year. States would be required to devote funds from these block grants to first support insurance for those who were Medicaid’s original targets when the program was created in the 1960s: the poor, the elderly and the disabled; families with children eligible for CHIP; or anyone with preexisting conditions. Able-bodied adults without dependents who received health insurance through Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion or subsidized exchanges could be supported only if a state chooses to do so with whatever funds are left over.

The RSC budget is an intellectually coherent vision for a smaller, limited federal government. But that vision no longer unites today’s GOP coalition, as the January EPPC-YouGov poll I drafted plainly shows. Sixty-three percent of Trump voters, for example, want to keep Social Security benefits the same for future retirees as they are for current recipients, even if payroll taxes must increase. Forty-five percent of Trump voters would rather ensure every senior citizen gets the health care they need regardless of the cost of Medicare to society; that number rises to 58 percent among voters who backed President Barack Obama in 2012 and President Donald Trump in 2020. A 2017 study found that nearly half of “American Preservationists,” a core demographic among 2016 Trump supporters, would be threatened by the budget’s proposed cuts to Medicaid and the Obamacare exchanges. Of this demographic’s members who are younger than 65, 44 percent received their health insurance from government. That’s up to seven times more than similar members in other Trump-backing demographics.

Trade is another fault line between the old orthodoxy and the new GOP voter. The RSC budget declares that “free trade is how we put America first.” But the EPPC-YouGov poll found that 60 percent of Trump voters believe free trade costs American jobs, including 68 percent of Obama-Trump voters. The 2017 study also found substantial anti-trade sentiment among Trump voters, especially among the blue-collar American Preservationists.

Today’s party is united by cultural issues and divided by economic ones, with the party’s new working-class voters particularly likely to dissent from old, libertarian-tinged orthodoxy. That’s a political fact that free-market Republicans need to come to terms with if they want to help build a working-class-friendly GOP.

Crafting an economic policy that limits government enough to satisfy the traditional conservative Republican while giving scope to the aspirations of the populist, working-class former Democrat will be hard. But to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, anything worth doing is hard. That hard, at times painful, slog is at the heart of what building a coherent post-Trump future is about.

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