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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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This also helps explain why the budget’s most ambitious reform​—​the transformation of Medicare​—​doesn’t begin for 10 years. If you believe we confront an urgent crisis, why would your most significant proposal be put on hold for a decade, and exclude today’s retirees and near-retirees? Because Ryan’s basic goal is to avoid a disruptive shock in American life. His transformation of Medicare aims to allow those who have made long-term plans around certain expectations to keep those plans, and to allow others to make their own plans around the new arrangement. The 10-year lag is thus a crucial part of the reform, and the clock must start soon because waiting would mean that when the programs are forced to change, the change would have to be sudden and harsh.

Leaving the benefits of current seniors untouched is, of course, also good politics, as it neutralizes the most powerful source of opposition to entitlement reform. Indeed, for all the political risk that entitlement reform no doubt involves, the gradualism of the Ryan budget gives Republicans an important advantage. It allows them to present themselves as the party that offers protection from sudden shocks​—​both those of a debt crisis and those of the harsh austerity that the response to such a crisis would require if we don’t act now. Stuck with Senator Schumer’s talking points about extremism, the Democrats have failed to realize that, as they once more surrender the mantle of the party of ideas to the Republicans, they now also risk losing the mantle of economic security, and all without gaining the mantle of economic growth.

This is the political promise of the Ryan revolution for Republicans. It is also why we should expect a substantive Democratic response fairly soon. As he casts his eye toward reelection, President Obama will surely conclude that he cannot appear to abide the coming fiscal disaster while Republicans offer plausible solutions. The Democrats will be compelled to counteroffer, and therefore perhaps slowly to abandon the idea that the dream of the social-democratic welfare state can still be salvaged, and to pursue instead a vision of American life more compatible with democratic capitalism in the 21st century.

Such an awakening among liberals would be good for both parties and is essential to America’s future. It may even turn out to be the most important, and most radical, implication of Paul Ryan’s audaciously gradualist budget.

Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the editor of National Affairs.

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