Even before the press conference announcing his budget plan was over, Democrats were bombarding House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan with abuse. After years of denouncing Ryan as an extremist, liberals see no need to be diplomatic about the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate’s ideas. Moreover, after several days of press hype about President Obama’s tentative outreach to Republicans in the capital’s budget standoff, Ryan’s blueprint for cutting spending is being portrayed as nothing less than a provocation intended to deepen the partisan divide. The very act of his sticking to the principles he has consistently articulated throughout his career is viewed as somehow a lack of respect for the verdict of the voters last November as well as an unhelpful diversion from the path to compromise.

Nevertheless, Ryan’s plan was not a mistake. Whatever course the negotiations between the parties take in the coming weeks and months, it is important that Republicans state what they stand for. Elections may have consequences but, as Ryan rightly noted today, they don’t mean the losers must abandon their principles. Restraining the reach of government, cutting back spending and preventing job-killing tax hikes are just as important today as they were before Mitt Romney and Ryan lost. The battle over the direction of the country is not the function of one election or the tussle over the budget in any given year. President Obama’s re-election makes it all the more imperative that conservatives understand that they are involved in a contest over ideas rather than personalities. Far from this being the moment to roll over and confine the debate to one over the details of Obama’s plans, conservatives need to follow Ryan’s example and speak up for what is right if they are ever to prevail.

In one sense, Ryan’s critics are right to say his plan is not realistic. Since so much of it is predicated on the idea of repealing ObamaCare it must be admitted that it will not only be dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate after presumably being passed by the GOP-controlled House. Its provisions about ending the president’s signature health care legislation will also ensure that it won’t be a starting point for a putative deal between the White House and Republicans since there is no chance in the foreseeable future that ObamaCare can be eliminated.

But if Republicans are to continue to provide a viable alternative to Obama and the Democrats, it cannot be based on the idea that they are only going to argue about the margins of the debate rather than its substance. As Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus has said, Ryan’s budget is in effect a lemon law reminding the American people that there is an alternative to Obama’s health care boondoggle. As ObamaCare starts going into effect and the costs and the negative impact of the legislation are felt, Ryan’s critique will be seen as a dose of political realism rather than the partisan exercise that it is now being called.

It is entirely possible that if the president is serious about compromise that a “grand bargain” about the budget and tax reform can be struck. If so, then it may be that Republicans will give in on some of their positions on taxing just as Democrats will have to do more than pay lip service to entitlement reform.

But whether that happens or not, Republicans are still obligated to do more than provide a faint echo of liberal pieties. The voters chose a divided government last fall, not hegemony for the Democrats. That means any discussion about the budget must have two sides rather than the liberal narrative promoted by the president and his cheerleaders in the media. Ryan’s budget will never become law, but it is an important document that sets out the only real path to national solvency as well as for preserving Medicare. When contrasted with the president’s mindless defense of the status quo on entitlements as well as his inability to put forward to present a path to a balanced budget, Ryan’s plan doesn’t look so crazy.

Democrats who think they can win in 2014 by demagoguery aimed at Ryan are taking it for granted that public opinion is static rather than dynamic. Polls and even election results are variables, but political principles should reflect core beliefs about the future that are consistent with the value we place as a nation on freedom and limited government. There are many aspects of the Republican campaign last year that need revising, but a stand against the growth of government and holding down taxes is not a liability. Ryan has thrown down the gauntlet to the president and told the nation what he stands for. Win or lose, that’s the act of a party that is in this struggle for the long haul and can still eventually prevail.

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