Paul Ryan and the Perils of Realism

Paul Ryan and the Perils of Realism by • August 3, 2010 • Printer-friendly

We’ve gone as a nation, in less than two years, from Hope and Change to “hope we can change the stuff we hoped for.” Still, a question—one of pointed interest to Republicans—looms: change to what? Meaning, what are you all going to do, assuming you take the House and/or the Senate, to fix the problems you identified as reasons for throwing out the Obamacrats? People who push themselves as political saviors, like the Democrats two years ago, come to think of it, eventually find they have to start saving. It can be messy.

A Washington Post story by Perry Bacon Jr. underscores the GOP challenge: to wit, “Rep. Ryan pushes budget reform, and his party winces.”

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin’s First District, one of the smartest men in politics insofar as I can tell, goes around touting his brilliantly conceived free-market, limited-government approach called Roadmap for America’s Future. Whose main defect appears to be that in facilitating economic recovery it would change the ways Americans interface with federal social programs and the tax system that supports them. The prospect of that seems to disturb colleagues; thus … well, hear out Bacon: “[M]any Republican colleagues … even as they praise Ryan for his doggedness, privately consider the Roadmap a path to electoral disaster.”

In other words, do the right thing and the wrong things happen to you. Voters fume and rage. Some undertake to eject you from office, forcing you to resume the practice of estate law in Pascagoula or Pomona.

Not a few Republicans perforce wish Ryan would cool it with the reform stuff. First, beat the Democrats, then do the reform: That’s the ticket. Sequentially, yes, that’s the way it happens. But strange things tend to happen after victories. One is the choruses of adulation from people who see you as able to accommodate them, and would like to be accommodated in specified ways, some of which might address national problems, some of which undoubtedly wouldn’t. Another thing that happens after victory is a surge in inner satisfaction—in delight with prerogatives and power. From the top, the bottom below—meaning ordinary life—can look unimaginably alien. The desire is to stay in office by doing the things people like instead of the stuff they need.

What has Paul Ryan in mind that makes particular Republicans, as the Post headlines puts it, “wince”? Well, rationalizing the tax system—abolishing capital gains taxes, compressing and lowering the rates, including the rates for “the wealthy.” On Medicare, Ryan would let under-55s receive a Medicare payment they could use to buy Medicare-certified health plans. Social Security? He’d allow the same demographic to invest a third of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement plans.

And so on. The Roadmap is calibrated to whittle down, over time, the federal government’s long-term commitment to programs it can no longer afford. Realism is the rock on which Ryan has sketched his plan: We can’t do X, so we have to do Y. That’s of course where the trouble starts. Realism gets your average politician in trouble. A certain kind of voter prefers fantasy. Better to spoon out fantasy in dollops of spun-sugar promises and let future Congresses figure out what comes next!

Or is it? No plan, however creative, however frank in its aspirations, is perfect through and through. Ryan’s Roadmap—whose assumptions are verified by the Congressional Budget Office—can’t possibly be ideal and untouchable. Which isn’t quite the point. The point is the courage of the man in bringing forth so bold a measure. The point is, secondarily, the need for Republicans, if they really think themselves up to running the country, either to fall in line behind Ryan or show their own hands. So, the Roadmap won’t get us there? Pray, and then show us a better, more plausible route. And show it without delay.

Ryan’s unassailable, irrefutable point is that we can’t go on as we’re going; we don’t have the money. Victorious Republicans, take heed.


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