The Passion
of Paul Ryan

Column: Media help Democrats in slandering budget chairman and hastening America’s fiscal meltdown

AP Images
March 23, 2012

There is something morbidly appropriate in releasing the House GOP budget during Lent, when Christians around the world prepare to commemorate the most famous sacrifice in history.

The budget’s author, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has drawn attention to America’s parlous fiscal position for years—and has received nothing but grief in return. Since 2009 he has been the one man in Washington to offer a serious, detailed, long-term, conservative, and politically feasible policy to avert the coming "credit event" in which interest rates spike, debt service becomes unbearable, and the federal government is forced into the sort of panicked, arbitrary, and punishing austerity that is taking place in Europe.

Every year during the Obama presidency, Ryan has released a plan devoid of the spin and political guile so common to partisan debates in Washington. And every year the Democrats, assisted by the mainstream media, tar and feather him for it. Every year, the Passion play is reenacted.

Nor are the slanders limited to Ryan’s facts and figures. Quite the opposite: The liberals’ demagogic criticism of Ryan always turns personal. Robert Reich, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, attacked Ryan’s budget as "pure social Darwinism." Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, called Ryan "a clown" and an "obvious charlatan" for daring to offer tough solutions to our fiscal problems. The insults are routinely picked up and circulated in the liberal blogosphere. The New Republic writer Jonathan Cohn believes the Ryan budget is "morally bankrupt." One is not merely wrong to support it; one is a bad person.

The spectacle does clarify things, however. It reminds us that the Beltway culture is so cynical and immature and toxic that it is almost impossible to debate America’s deadbeat finances in a reasoned and moderate manner. The annual trashing of Ryan and his plan also allows Americans to see who is actually interested in addressing our long-term entitlement crisis in a manner consistent with America’s traditions of limited government, and who is more absorbed in petty bickering, ritualized Republican-beating, and kicking the panhandler’s can down the road. And so we will know exactly whom to blame when the crisis arrives: The Democrats and media who did nothing while the moment of opportunity slipped away.

To some extent the Democrats might be forgiven for spreading falsehoods. They at least have a partisan interest in seeing the budget defeated and an ideological interest in maintaining the entitlement state status quo. The media have no such excuse. Indeed, the manner in which prominent outlets so casually malign and distort the Path to Prosperity is evidence enough that large swaths of the journalistic establishment have become indistinguishable from the interns slaving away for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Democratic National Committee. The only difference is that Debbie’s interns are unpaid.

The fiscal year 2013 budget had not even been released when Politico ran an article with the headline, "For Democrats, GOP Budget is Christmas in March." The author, Seung Min Kim, "reported" the following: "The Republican budget plan last year was a political winner for Democrats, and party leaders expect nothing less this time around." What followed was a transcription of interviews with Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), Jan Schakowsky (D., Il.), a spokeswoman for the DCCC, and a "senior Democratic aide" confirming the article's thesis and attacking Ryan’s budget as mean. A quote from a Ryan video was inserted perfunctorily at the end of the article in a parody of balance.

Notably missing from Kim’s dispatch, however, was any actual evidence that the Ryan budget has exacted a political cost on the GOP. She cites but a single Republican who lost a special election in New York to replace a congressman forced to resign after a transgender sex scandal.

There is no evidence for her to cite because there has been no such cost. Republicans may have lost the seat in New York 26, but they also won two subsequent special elections, in New York and Nevada, after the House voted in support of the FY2012 Ryan budget. Public perceptions of the Republican Party, in terms of favorability, party identification, and the generic congressional ballot, have been remarkably stable over the last year. The House’s proposal to overhaul Medicare did not cause Obama’s job approval rating to spike in the spring of 2011; the killing of Osama bin Laden did. And in any case those gains were erased over the course of the debt ceiling fight and the gradual reversion to the anti-Obama norm. The president remains vulnerable and the Republican candidate who is most competitive against him, Mitt Romney, has aligned himself with Ryan.

The argument that Ryan is a political liability has always been oversold. On the contrary, the only Republican who seems to have been harmed outright by the Ryan plan is the now forgotten Jane Corwin, who lost to Kathy Hochul in the aforementioned three-way race in New York. (Hochul, too, may soon lose her seat when the New York legislature finally proposes a redistricting plan.)

The most prominent advocate of the Ryan budget, after all, is Ryan himself, and he has represented the same Democratic-leaning swing district for more than a decade. The template for the Ryan budget, the Roadmap for America’s Future, became an election issue in 2010 when the president singled out Ryan for attack. That did not stop Republicans from winning a huge victory in the fall. Many of the candidates linked to the Roadmap, including Marco Rubio in senior-laden Florida, came under heavy fire. Rubio won, and he was not alone. Nationwide, the Republican share of the senior vote went from 48 percent in 2008 to 58 percent in 2010.

This counter-narrative obviously complicates the Democrats’ attempts to frighten senior citizens into abandoning the Republicans, so the media ignore it. With the exception of Joe Scarborough, who took a couple of Democrats to task for attacking Ryan while offering no serious entitlement plan of their own, MSNBC’s coverage of the budget rollout was limited to parroting the DCCC-Politico line. During some of the anti-Ryan segments, a "Christmas in March?" graphic ran at the lower corner of the screen just to get the message across.

White House economist Gene Sperling and Democratic congressman Steve Israel were handed a megaphone to make things up about the budget. Bill Burton, senior strategist at the Obama super PAC, may not be very good at raising money, but he excels at making spurious claims, such as when he had the gall to tell hip-hop expert turned MSNBC host Alex Wagner that the Ryan budget contained "no hard choices." Politico reiterated its point in a Thursday article by Jake Sherman, headlined "How Paul Ryan Sold His Budget Plan," that opened with the blatant assertion, "The Paul Ryan budget was a political disaster last year for Republicans." Again, no substantial evidence was offered in support.

So eager were liberals in government and the press to criticize Ryan that none of them seem actually to have read his budget. The drumbeat from last year, that Ryan’s plan would "end Medicare," was slightly modified; Ryan would now "end Medicare as we know it," which is true to the extent that Medicare as we know it is going to drive America off a fiscal cliff.

In truth, the FY2013 version of the Path to Prosperity contains several modifications that, in a just world, would make it more palatable to Democrats. While the plan would overhaul Medicare into a premium-support system, one of the options in that system would be traditional fee-for-service Medicare. What’s more, the level of premium support would be determined not by a pre-set formula but by a competitive-bidding process, similar to a plan proposed by Yuval Levin last year, in which insurers would compete to meet the government’s minimum defined benefit at the lowest cost. A mechanism would be put in place to lower Medicare costs through competition and consumer choice.

This, along with several other features, has been lost on the Democrats. It is wrong to say that out of pocket costs would increase for poorer seniors. It is wrong to say that under the plan insurers would not cover high-risk seniors. It is wrong to blame Ryan for not being specific about which tax expenditures he would eliminate, since that falls under the House Ways and Means Committee, which he does not chair. It is wrong to criticize the Path to Prosperity for not bringing the budget into balance for a few decades (under a set of flawed assumptions) when Obama’s budget never aimed at balance in the first place.

The most important words in life are, "Compared to what?" Ryan offers a way to balance the budget while cutting and simplifying the tax code and introducing market principles into an unwieldy and potentially disastrous entitlement program. What is Obama’s solution? "We’ve got our own plan," Obama for America spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter told Ed Schultz, while leaving the details unclear. The Obama plan is simple: Do nothing to change the overall structure of Medicare. Force $360 billion in cuts that probably won’t materialize but, if they did, would result in reduced payments to drug companies and health care providers. Otherwise wait for the fiscal crash to happen and leave clean up duties to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, an unelected panel of technocrats that would determine which treatments Medicare would pay for and at what price. Meanwhile, taxes would increase. Government would continue to spend beyond its means. Dependency would grow.

On the one hand, then, you have a document that would revolutionize the way government delivers health services to seniors while ensuring the safety net remains durable for the long term; that would reduce inefficiencies in the tax code and increase opportunities for growth; that would preserve America’s defense capabilities and would improve personal responsibility and thrift by reforming U.S. welfare programs and bringing the budget into balance.

On the other hand, there is a plan that hikes taxes, ramps up spending, does nothing about the nation’s unsustainable fiscal trajectory, and lets 15 people rule over an increasingly troubled Medicare program and make decisions about Americans’ health care.

I know which option I would choose. This fall, Americans may make a similar choice. And next Easter may mark not the death of the Ryan plan but its rebirth.