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The Great Debate

Ryan vs. Obama will be this year’s main event, if the president is up for it.

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By FRED BARNES
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Ryan personally lobbied conservative talkers, including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, columnists such as David Brooks of the New York Times, think tanks, reporters, policy experts, and anyone else Ryan could get to sit down with him. The House Republican Study Committee produced its own budget with deeper cuts than Ryan’s, but RSC members are overwhelmingly supporting Ryan too.

The biggest coup for Ryan was Democrat Erskine Bowles, the Obama-appointed co-chairman of Obama’s debt commission. Bowles and his co-chairman, Republican Alan Simpson, lauded the Ryan budget as “a serious, honest, straightforward approach.” Compare this with their take on the Obama budget. “The president’s budget doesn’t go nearly far enough in addressing the nation’s fiscal challenges,” they said. “In fact, it goes nowhere close.”

While that was a blow to Obama, he would still have the commanding position in a debate with Ryan. He’s president and commander in chief. Ryan is a House committee chairman. There’s a difference. Obama has the biggest megaphone and gets the most attention. The media, while critical of Obama’s budget, are largely on his side ideologically. Press attacks on Ryan are inevitable. Indeed, they’ve begun. Obama can change the subject and drag the media off with him.

But Ryan has significant advantages in a clash over spending, the deficit, debt, health care, taxes, economic growth, and America’s future. His biggest asset is his vastly superior knowledge of most of these subjects. I suspect he knows more about Obama’s budget and health care plan than the president does. He’s an expert. Obama isn’t.

Ryan has the credibility that comes from meeting head-on the fiscal challenge to which Obama responds with lip service. In one sense, Ryan is less politically motivated than the president. He’s not running for president and has said so repeatedly and convincingly. He doesn’t have to answer to interest groups. 

And he’s steering the country in the direction it wants to go, though he’s probably doing so faster and more aggressively than most Americans expected. Ryan is a risk-taker with an instinct for leadership. Obama is a leader with an instinct for avoidance.

“If there’s anyone made for this moment,” says McCarthy, “it’s Ryan.” If anyone has said that about Obama, I missed it. Now he has an opportunity. He can meet the challenge of Paul Ryan and the fiscal issues he’s been inclined to dodge. He can debate Ryan. Or leave it to others. The country is waiting.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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