The calls were unexpected. Early in 2010, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, began receiving requests for information about the Roadmap for America’s Future, his ambitious plan to reform entitlements, taxes, and spending. Ryan, a Republican star, is no stranger to press inquiries. But these were coming from an unexpected source: Republican candidates for Congress who were looking for solutions—any solutions—to America’s fiscal crisis. Ryan estimates that he sent about 100 copies of the Roadmap to interested candidates. “We didn’t plan that,” he says.
Nor did Ryan fully anticipate the left’s ferocious response to his suggestions. Almost as soon as the updated Roadmap was unveiled in January—the original version was released in 2008—Democrats and liberals pounced. The fusillade was aimed at the Roadmap’s most controversial aspect: an overhaul of entitlements for Americans under 55 years old that would introduce means-testing and optional personal accounts into Social Security, and transform Medicare into a defined-contribution voucher program. Ignoring the facts, Democrats tried to play the senior card, suggesting to anyone who’d listen that the Roadmap would “privatize” Social Security and “shred” the safety net. President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, House Democratic campaign chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, dozens of Democratic incumbents, legions of liberal talking heads—they all claimed the Roadmap would hurt seniors. Paul Krugman of the New York Times went so far as to call Ryan “the flimflam man” and his good-faith proposal a “fraud.”
Democrats were convinced that these scare tactics would work to their advantage. Congressman Van Hollen told Time magazine that the Roadmap was “a gift” and that “we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about how we’ll be fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare.” California Democrat Mike Honda said at a press conference, “You do this, you mess with my mother.” One Huffington Post blogger was so excited he couldn’t decide whether the Roadmap would serve as “political Kryptonite” or a “silver bullet to move” seniors into the Democratic column.
Ryan, moreover, was no longer the sole target of the attacks. Any Republican who had endorsed the Roadmap, spoken kindly of Ryan, voiced support for his ideas, or raised the possibility of entitlement reform found himself under assault. The list included Senate candidates Dan Coats in Indiana, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Marco Rubio in Florida, where seniors made up 35 percent of the 2010 electorate.
They all won, of course. As did House candidates Bob Dold in Illinois, Michael Grimm in New York, Kristi Noem in South Dakota, Dan Benishek in Michigan, Joe Heck in Nevada, and Sean Duffy in Wisconsin. The Democratic campaign to tar them with Paul Ryan’s Roadmap—“As if I was linked to some evil force,” says Senator-elect Coats—failed spectacularly. Not only did it fail, the share of seniors nationwide who voted Republican jumped from 48 percent in 2008 to a whopping 58 percent in 2010. Now Ryan is preparing to take over the Budget Committee in the next Congress. The Roadmap wasn’t a hindrance. It may even have been an advantage.
Ryan says the 2010 elections proved that entitlement reform is “not the third rail it’s supposed to be.” Coats adds that “the American people have grown politically these last two years.” If they are right, then maybe, just maybe, the country is ready to have a serious debate over the future of the American welfare state. It’s about time.
At least five conditions have changed since the last major push for reform, President Bush’s failed overhaul of Social Security in 2005. The most obvious is that Bush is no longer president. More important, however, is the fact that the financial crisis, the Great Recession, and Obama’s big spending have created huge deficits and exposed the gaping, bottomless pit of America’s unfunded liabilities. Meanwhile, a triumvirate of Republican governors—Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, and Chris Christie of New Jersey—have proven that a serious approach to fiscal responsibility is not only the right thing to do and brings positive, real-world outcomes, but can be politically popular as well. The fourth difference is the rise of the Tea Party movement. The ranks of incoming Republican congressmen will be filled with real believers in reining in deficit spending and limiting government’s growth.
The decisive factor, however, may have been the passage of Obamacare. At first blush, this might appear to be a contradiction. After all, wasn’t Obamacare sold (speciously) as a way to cut the deficit? And haven’t Republicans attacked (reasonably) the law’s tax hikes and Medicare cuts? All true. Yet the law also made clear the Democratic approach to entitlements: Cut programs for seniors not to save money, but to spend on whole new programs. And don’t change the architecture of these programs to create savings in the future, but cut indiscriminately into the benefits that seniors receive here and now. Obamacare, Ryan says, “wasn’t an exercise in making Medicare solvent.” It’s an exercise in expansive government—and the public rejects it.
What Obamacare did, quite accidentally, was fashion a political coalition of seniors and independents and conservatives who are more open to commonsense changes in the American welfare state than one might otherwise imagine. Grandma and Grandpa are able to distinguish between laws that kick them off Medicare Advantage and proposals that preserve their benefits while putting Medicare on a sustainable footing for the future. Joe Sixpack understands who is serious about spending and deficits and who is not. And Paul Ryan’s vision for an America that provides a safety net for those who need it the most, while encouraging personal responsibility and opportunity among the able-bodied, is a step closer to reality.