Commentary Magazine


Did Obama Win the Battle and the War Against Entitlement Reform?

In late January, I noted that Senate Democrats were furious with a member of their own party, Ron Wyden, for attempting to negotiate bipartisan Medicare reform with Paul Ryan. The Democrats expressed frustration that Wyden was taking an election issue off the table for them, by getting Ryan to agree to leave traditional Medicare as an option in future reforms and by putting a bipartisan stamp on what could be a controversial plan.

The Democrats thought they had Ryan beat–but they didn’t want him to retreat just yet. An article in The Hill today buttresses the Democrats’ interpretation of the dustup over Ryan’s “roadmap,” though the issue may have spooked Ryan’s fellow Republicans more than Ryan himself:

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was bloodied in the first round after his proposal to revamp Medicare became a campaign poster for Democrats.

Obama, who skirted major proposals to reform Medicare and Social Security in his own budget last year, invited Ryan to a speech and then ripped him from the stage, saying the proposal would “end Medicare as we know it.”

Ryan’s plan soon became a campaign theme that Democrats credited with handing them a special election victory in upstate New York.

One year later, Ryan is showing he can adjust after taking a punch, which would be a good thing, as the president is going to present his fiscal 2013 budget next Monday.

It should be interesting to see if the president is at all willing to submit a budget that has any chance of actually becoming law. His budget proposal in May 2011 received not a single vote–even from Democrats–and went down 0-97. A Democratic budget that scares every single Democrat into voting against it is not a particularly serious offer, and we’ll learn next week whether we’ll see a repeat of that.

But we’ll also see how serious congressional Republicans are about entitlement reform. Mitt Romney has shown some hesitation on the issue, though The Hill story notes that Romney’s own plan is very similar to Ryan’s new plan. But Republicans may have even less appetite for reform than Romney does.

“I would hope that it’s a thoughtful budget that focuses on the numbers for the next fiscal year rather than being some ‘roadmap’ for the next 10 years that invites criticism,” Ohio Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette told The Hill.

If that’s the attitude among congressional Republicans–that the party should not seek to reform institutions or pass forward-thinking budgets, but rather try to survive year to year until insolvency swallows the country whole–Ryan and Romney will be leaders with no followers. And Obama will have won a larger victory for himself and for the welfare state than even he thought.