Even his adversaries agree that Rep. Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future is a big idea: The plan reforms Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and the income tax. It effectively deals with the long-term fiscal crisis. The Obama budget, by contrast, projects record deficits and rising public debt long into the future.
Obama says the Republicans are always on the sidelines, but on a major issue -- preventing the fiscal reckoning that could lead to high interest rates, inflation, low growth, economy-strangling austerity plans, or all of the above -- Obama and the Democrats have little to say. To date, the president's attempt to address the entitlement problem has been restricted to his health care bill, which relied on rosy assumptions and left the "tough choices" to future Congresses and Independent Medicare Advisory Boards. And the health reform is unlikely to pass in any case. Entitlement commissions? Nonstarters. Spending freezes? They're trivial. We're back at square one.
Liberals understand that Ryan has made a good-faith attempt to grapple with a fundamental problem. In his meeting with House Republicans last week, Obama elevated Ryan to presidential-sparring-partner status and praised his character. Budget chief Peter Orszag admits that Ryan's plan "succeeds in addressing our long-term fiscal problem, which is a significant accomplishment." The Washington Post's liberal domestic policy blogger concedes that the Roadmap "actually erases the massive long-term deficit."
They oppose it anyway, of course. Why? Because, Orszag says, the Roadmap "is a dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals and in which the Medicare program in particular is dramatically changed from its current structure." Specifically, Medicare beneficiaries under 55 when the Roadmap is enacted would receive a means-tested "Medicare payment" pegged to inflation that they would then use to purchase health coverage on the individual market. Liberals say the payment "does not keep pace with health-care costs over time."
Here's Ryan's rebuttal:
Yes, Medicare costs will grow more slowly under the Roadmap than they would otherwise. Again, that’s the point. Even the president acknowledges that, absent reform, Medicare will go bankrupt. Director Orszag has stated in the past that nothing else we do on the fiscal front will matter if we fail to address the unsustainable future of Medicare; after the program goes bankrupt, it will drag down the entire federal budget and U.S. economy. Medicare’s trustees project that the program will go bankrupt within the next seven years.
Contrast this plan with the Democrats’ health-care bills. Their legislation relies on cuts to Medicare for current retirees — and uses the proceeds to pay for a new entitlement instead of making the program solvent. These Medicare reductions would significantly affect the delivery of services to beneficiaries.
One premise of the Roadmap's health care reforms is that a market-based system will reduce inefficiencies and thereby reduce the price inflation inherent in the current third-party-payment system. You can either agree or disagree with this; we won't know the true consequences until the plan is implemented.
What's clear is that Ryan has succeeded in re-igniting an ideological debate over the proper scope of government and the best way to allocate public goods. He's elevated the profile of small-government conservatives and helped the GOP recover its lost reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility. And he's done it in a policy-heavy, detailed-oriented way that even the most condescending of liberals cannot ignore. Not too shabby.