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How Paul Ryan Won the Recess

1:15 PM, Apr 30, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Wielding a laser pointer, Ryan lays out the federal budget, our deficit, and how entitlement programs, plus interest, are on track to consume all federal revenue in over a decade.

There are occasionally audible gasps in the crowd when the he clicks the slide that shows the gusher of red ink that consumes the budget on our current path. He then shows the GOP budget proposal to gradually eliminate the deficit and the debt. “It’s just like a mortgage,” Ryan says. “The alternative is we have a debt crisis. The alternative is everybody gets hurt.”

The final slide compares how he and President Obama would change Medicare. It's not a debate about whether or not to reform Medicare but how. Ryan asks everyone 55 and older to raise their hands (most do). He then tells them that nothing changes under Medicare for them. Ryan describes the plan to reform Medicare for the under-54 set by subsidizing their premiums and letting them pick among a variety of plans regulated by Medicare. The Medicare prescription drug benefit came in 41 percent below Congressional Budget Office predictions because seniors get to pick among competing plans, Ryan says.

On the other hand, President Obama “puts this new board in charge of Medicare,” says Ryan, “15 people he appoints and then they decide how Medicare prices work. They decide how to cut costs in Medicare.… We believe it will lead to diminished quality of care for current seniors.”

During the 45-minute question and answer session, Ryan will get one or maybe two questions about how Medicare reform would work for younger workers. “The status quo is the greatest threat to Medicare,” Ryan says. He explains that the program is means-tested so “those with less get more and those with more get less,” and it’s risk-adjusted so that the subsidy will grow to stabilize rates for those who get sick.

Ryan is well aware that the debate over his proposed budget has just begun, but it seems that Ryan and the Republicans have the edge so far nationwide.

It’s not just that widespread backlash failed to materialize across the country during the congressional recess that followed the nearly unanimous House Republican for Ryan’s budget. Polls suggest that the Democratic attack ads claiming that Republicans voted to “end” or “abolish” Medicare haven't worked. Gallup reports that 43 percent of Americans support Ryan’s budget, while 44 percent support Obama’s proposal. “If these numbers hold, this is good news for the Republicans,” wrote the New York Times’s liberal polling analyst Nate Silver. “But Republicans ought to be careful about declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’. What polls like Gallup’s seem to reflect is the overall partisan split in the country.”

Polling specifically on Ryan’s Medicare reform varies wildly—ranging from a small plurality supporting to the vast majority opposing—depending on the how the question is worded. A New York Times/CBS poll found that Americans support Ryan's plan 47% to 41%. It did not specify that the reform only affects those 54 and younger. A Washington Post poll found that 65% of Americans oppose changing Medicare "so that people over 65 would receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy [emphasis added]." In other words, the Post poll misrepresented Ryan's plan.

Many in the media are doing their part to perpetuate the misinformation. On April 26, I woke up to the local Fox News TV affiliate reporting that Ryan’s plan would “minimize” Medicare, with no mention that the change only affects those under 55. The AP reporter traveling with Ryan wrote in his first dispatch of the day that Ryan’s budget would “fundamentally restructure” Medicare “for the elderly.” (Yes, that's the same AP reporter credited above. Nobody's perfect!)

Ryan’s constituents pressed him on a wide range of complex topics. He never talked down to them. When asked about foreign oil financing terrorists overseas, Ryan recommended Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom and Dore Gold’s Hatred’s Kingdom

Sometimes Ryan sounded like a young economics professor conducting a seminar. “Our fiscal policy is messing up our monetary policy," he said when asked at Thursday's Paddock Lake town hall about the decline of the dollar. "So what is fiscal policy? Fiscal policy is government’s taxing and spending. Monetary policy is what the Federal Reserve does—how we manage our currency, how we print out money.”

“Have you ever heard of quantitative easing?” Ryan asked. “The Federal Reserve is printing money to pay for our debt.”

“It’s setting up an inflation problem… What does that mean to you? That means you lose the purchasing power in your dollar.”

Of course, it’s the students who are grading the professor in this case. And he gets high marks. 

Ryan is proof that politics is not an entirely deterministic enterprise. "It's the economy, stupid!" Yes, structural factors matter. But candidates matter, too. Rational argument and moral suasion matter. There's a reason why Ryan won 68% of the vote in 2010 and 64% of the vote in 2008, when John McCain only garnered 47.5% of the vote in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District.

Of course, not everyone has had such an easy time defending the budget as its author does. Check out this video: Arkansas congressman Rick Crawford was so flummoxed by a question about the budget's proposal to lower the top tax rate from 35% to 25% that he ended the meeting.

There’s only one Paul Ryan,” one Republican congressman told National Review’s Andrew Stiles on background earlier this week. “And it’s not that the budget isn’t a great plan, but there’s just so much in there that a lot of us haven’t been able to digest to the point where we can defend it as eloquently as he does.”

If Ryan can defend the Ryan plan better than anyone else, shouldn’t he be the one to debate the president about it in 2012? Shouldn't he consider running for president if no viable candidate emerges to champion real Medicare reform?

"I’m not even going there," Ryan told me on Wednesday. "I’m not even going there with my mind or my discussions.… I have no doubt somebody who’s running for president sees the true nature of our fiscal condition, they’ll come to the similar conclusions about how best to fix [Medicare], if they’re a conservative."

John McCormack is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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