Commentary Magazine


Paul Ryan’s Extraordinary Budget

Today Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, released his budget. (For the full budget, see here; and for a summary, see Ryan’s Wall Street Journal op-ed here). About this remarkable document, I want to say two things.

The first is that Ryan’s budget does what Americans generally, and the pundit class in particular, says politicians don’t do. It tackles head on the issue of entitlements. It offers a real path to re-limiting government (over the next 10 years it cuts more than $5 trillion dollars from President Obama’s budget). It makes the “hard choices” that elected officials often avoid.

To be specific, Mr. Ryan’s budget proposes structural reforms to Medicare, the highly popular program that is driving us toward fiscal ruin. The Ryan budget faces up to, rather than denies or ignores, certain mathematical and demographic realities. For a variety of complicated reasons, very few political leaders have been willing to do so.

In his 1986 book The Triumph of Politics, David Stockman, at the end of his 411-page lamentation, wrote this:

Why did the conservative, anti-spending party (GOP) end up ratifying a half-trillion dollar per year welfare state? In the answer lies the modern dirty little secret of the Republican Party: The conservative opposition helped build the American welfare state brick by brick during the three decades prior to 1980. The Reagan Revolution failed because the Republican Party decided to stick with its own historic handiwork. It could not and would not disown after November 1980 the “me-too” statism that had guided it for all those years in the political wilderness.

Now I strongly dissent from Stockman’s judgment that the Reagan Revolution failed; and I understand why people consider Stockman to be an unadmirable human being. But he was actually on to something important in his critique of Republicans, conservatives, and big government. An objective analysis of the Reagan years showed that the commitment to limited government was more rhetorical than real. There was no sustained effort to reform entitlement programs during the Reagan presidency. That may have been prudent, by the way. President Reagan was much more successful at, and much more committed to, cutting tax rates, reforming the tax code, and rebuilding the American military. There was simply no real public support for reforming the modern welfare state among the American polity.

Today we live in a different, and fiscally more perilous, moment. In the past, we could avoid dealing with entitlement programs, even if doing so wasn’t wise. But today dealing with them is a fiscal — and arguably a moral — imperative. That’s because right now we’re on a Greece-like trajectory.

More than any other single individual in American politics today — perhaps with the exception of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels — Ryan understands this and is willing to do something about it. That was true last year with his budget; and it’s true again this year with his budget. (The Path to Prosperity, it should be said, includes significant proposals to spur economic growth, including intelligent changes to our tax code and ways to contain and undo crony capitalism.)

The second point worth making about Chairman Ryan’s budget is that a year after he released The Path to Prosperity 1.0, Ryan and House Republicans have not only not been politically crippled, they are actually winning the argument, as well as converts (like Democratic Senator Ron Wyden) to their cause.

One of the most significant political facts of the last year has been that despite efforts by the president and his party to slander the GOP (including by claiming that Republicans were taking a Darwinian approach to autistic and Down syndrome children), it simply hasn’t worked. Ads showing Representative Ryan tossing an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff are so ludicrous and discrediting that it’s mentioned these days far more often by Republicans than Democrats. That dog, having been unleashed for the last four decades, may no longer hunt. We may well be living in an era of uncommon fiscal sobriety and maturity. It is possible that what John Adams called stubborn facts — about the size, scope, and reach of government; about our structural deficits and debt; about how we will face a calamity unless we reform Medicare — are now driving our political debate, at least to a degree that has been missing in the past.

We’ll know more after the first Tuesday in November. But for now, Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan has done something quite remarkable. A Member of the House of Representative has shifted the political axis. He has filled the breach left by an unusually irresponsible chief executive. All honor is due him.

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