Representative Paul Ryan’s 40th birthday coincided with the House GOP retreat in Baltimore on January 29. Ryan’s wife and three children joined him for the event. President Obama was also there, at the invitation of the House Republican leadership, to deliver remarks and answer questions from selected members. And he had a surprise in store for the six-term Wisconsin Republican: a spur-of-the-moment, presidential-level debate over the federal budget.
Hmm, Ryan thought. This is interesting. The two engaged in a back-and-forth over the president’s increase in discretionary spending during fiscal year 2010. Later, Obama said that Ryan, ranking member of the House Budget Committee, is “a pretty sincere guy” with “a beautiful family.” Later still, the two went at it once more, this time over the politics of Medicare. “I want to make sure that I’m not being unfair to your proposal,” Obama said.
He was talking about Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” an ambitious plan to overhaul the welfare state and pay off the national debt (you can read the 95-page document at www.americanroadmap.org). For Americans under 55, the Roadmap would fundamentally restructure Medicare and Medicaid through means-tested vouchers, while introducing opt-in personal accounts to Social Security. It would replace the corporate income tax with a business consumption tax; repeal the Alternative Minimum, dividend, capital gains, and estate taxes; and reduce the six current tax brackets to two—one at 10 percent, the other at 25 percent. And that’s not all. Other parts of the plan include job training programs, budgetary reforms, and a free-market health care proposal modeled on Ryan’s Patients Choice Act. “This works,” Ryan told me last week. “It solves our fiscal crisis. It turns it around.” The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office agrees with him.
No question, the Roadmap is a big idea. But it isn’t a new one. Ryan initially released the proposal in 2008, when it fell flat. “First they laughed at us, then they ignored us,” says Representative Devin Nunes of California, a Ryan ally.
What’s changed? America has fallen into a vat of red ink. The financial crisis and recession have darkened the country’s long-term fiscal outlook. Unemployment stands at 9.7 percent. The president’s fiscal year 2011 budget forecasts record deficits and debt long into the future. Inflation, punishing interest rates, high taxes, and economic stagnation are not far behind. Hence the Democrats, who can’t defend their own budgets, desperately want to change the subject. They’ve found one they like: what’s wrong with Ryan’s Roadmap.
Obama, White House budget chief Peter Orszag, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Chris Van Hollen have all attacked Ryan’s proposal as hurting the elderly. So has the Democratic National Committee and the White House-friendly media. In his latest column, Time magazine’s Joe Klein writes that the Roadmap is “an all-out assault on the financial security of the nation’s most devout voters.” The Washington Post’s domestic policy blogger wrote last week that “Ryan’s budget proposes reforms that are nothing short of violent.”
Not so. Ryan preserves the current entitlement system for everyone over the age of 55. Nor do the critics mention that the only way to avoid a fiscal crisis decades from now is by means-testing benefits, raising the retirement age, and otherwise reducing the government’s future obligations. The alternative is insolvency and “austerity plans” imposed by the IMF.
Liberals accuse Ryan of cutting future Medicare benefits. True enough—but they’re missing the point. “Any reform would do that,” he says. “They want to do it by a government monopoly and rationing. We attack the root cause of health care inflation by introducing free-market mechanisms into the system.”
Ryan’s political problem is that he’s a congressman with a presidential-level agenda. The Roadmap is a realistic way to clean up America’s fiscal mess, but there is no chance of it becoming law as long as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid run Congress and Barack Obama is president. Moreover, Bush’s failed Social Security reform and Obama’s doomed health bill show that a president has to have large congressional majorities as well as public approval to pass major changes to entitlement law.
What the Roadmap needs is support from a Republican presidential aspirant. Ryan insists it won’t be him, however. He says he has no plans to run for president in 2012. His disavowal, he goes on, is “Shermanesque.”
That may disappoint conservatives and Republicans who have found Ryan to be an engaging television presence and a successful political entrepreneur. He’s young, charismatic, wonky, and well spoken. He’s already held his own against President Obama. His national profile is on the rise. He recently endorsed conservative favorite Marco Rubio in the Florida Senate Republican primary. He’s scheduled to speak at two fundraisers in New Hampshire later this month.
Devin Nunes jokes that he’s the charter member of the “Draft Ryan” club. As the budget outlook grows darker, expect membership in the club to rise. Because sometimes you don’t pick the moment. Sometimes the moment picks you.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of The Weekly Standard and author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.