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The Radical Gradualism of Paul Ryan

The status quo is far more ‘extreme’ than the Republican budget

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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Late last month, Senator Charles Schumer of New York led a conference call in which Senate Democrats briefed reporters about the ongoing budget battle. At the outset, unaware that his comments were already audible to reporters on the line, Schumer provided some marching orders, advising his colleagues to describe Republican proposals as radical. “I always use the word extreme,” he said. “That’s what the caucus instructed me to use this week.”

Two Choices

It was no surprise, therefore, that when House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan released the Republican budget proposal for 2012 last week, Democrats in Washington called it radical and extreme. The White House labeled the plan unbalanced. Representative Chris Van Hollen, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, called it “ideology on steroids.” Iowa senator Tom Harkin said the Ryan plan “gives new meaning to the term extreme.”

But it wasn’t only Democrats who seemed struck by the radical character of Ryan’s proposal. Many supporters of his budget, too, noted above all its boldness, or its wholehearted fiscal conservatism, which is just another way to say that he proposes a dramatic change.

And it is true, of course, that Ryan’s budget offers an unflinching conservative program. He proposes to have the federal government spend $5.8 trillion less over the next decade than it would under current law. He would reduce the accumulated deficits by more than $4 trillion over that period, and continue such reductions in the years that follow. He would thereby quickly begin to reduce the size of the federal debt relative to the economy, and over the coming decades would not only balance the budget but actually begin to pay off the principal of the debt. He would do that by reducing domestic discretionary spending, reforming the tax code to broaden the base and lower rates, block-granting some federal welfare programs (including Medicaid) to the states, repealing Obamacare, privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, cutting back farm subsidies and corporate welfare, and (most significant in the long run) reforming Medicare for those now younger than 55 from an open-ended entitlement into a system of premium supports to subsidize the purchase of private insurance.

This adds up to an extraordinarily comprehensive and ambitious conservative policy agenda​—​more so than any Republican budget we have seen before, including those proposed by the Gingrich Congress in the ’90s and by Ronald Reagan in the ’80s. And yet, to call it “extreme” misses a crucial point. Ryan’s plan is above all a gradual and measured solution to our fiscal problems​—​one that offers continuity and security to help us avoid a truly extreme crisis.

This becomes especially clear when Ryan’s approach is contrasted with the alternative offered by the Democrats. Ryan talks about this moment as a choice between two visions. But in fact, it is a choice between a vision and a nonvision. Opposed to the House Republicans’ agenda is not a different set of solutions to our deepening fiscal problems proposed by the left, or even a defense of our existing welfare state. What the Democrats offer instead is complaisance that amounts to a knowing acquiescence in a preventable disaster. The Democratic party now has no discernible policy agenda whatsoever. It offers only a reflexive defense of an indefensible status quo.

In his own 2012 budget, released in February, President Obama proposed to do essentially nothing in response to the coming fiscal calamity​—​indeed, his budget would increase the deficit. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid told MSNBC last month that we should not consider any changes to Social Security until we actually confront a catastrophic failure of the program in the 2030s, saying “Two decades from now, I’m willing to take a look at it. But I’m not willing to take a look at it right now.” In a conference call with liberal bloggers about Ryan’s budget last week, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi warned against proposing a Democratic counteroffer for entitlement reform. “Once you put another proposal on the table you’re conceding that there must be some big problem,” she said.

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