04.28.11

Is Paul Ryan Delusional?

The budget-slashing congressman seems to think he's beyond the normal rules of politics. Jack Germond on why he's crazy to take on Medicare.

A lot of us thought Newt Gingrich retired the cup for Egregious Political Hubris a generation ago. When he led the Republicans in capturing control of the House in 1994, you would have thought he invented the game. It was hard to take.

Today, however, we have Paul Ryan and his cohorts who seem to think they have rewritten the laws of politics and, more to the point, behave as if they control the government, not just their own bailiwick. Their message is that they were elected for a purpose so sacred it is beyond moral challenge. We shall see.

Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has won plaudits for coming forward with a comprehensive plan for putting the nation on the road to fiscal sanity. And, to the extent that he has framed the argument, he deserves that credit. No one is questioning his sincerity.

But what he is saying with this bizarre proposal is that he intends to reinvent the wheel and has carte blanche from the election returns. What he is saying, in effect, is that political history can be ignored—and that the majority has an unfettered right to exercise a tyranny over the minority.

In fact, among heavyweights of both parties in Washington, there has been a rough consensus for years on what needs to be done to preserve the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs. The thinking among Republicans as well as Democrats has been that reform of the entitlement programs could only be done in a White House second term when the president could lead without worrying about slipping into political oblivion. Some of us have memories of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan 30 years ago, telling reporters over a friendly glass that only a lame duck could lead the way with any hope of success.

That has not worked out. George W. Bush had no appetite for heavy lifting—though he did try, and fail, to privatize Social Security—and Bill Clinton was too compromised by his penchant for playing slap-and-tickle with a young intern. But there was never any mystery about what needed to be done to deal with the entitlement problem—changes in qualifying for benefits and means tests for later generations of recipients, plus higher payroll taxes for the wealthy.

In other words, the political balm of reassurance for the elderly and those close to retirement or inclined to worry early about their dotage.

Ryan and his allies seem to think they have tapped a fresh spring of popular resentment of federal spending.

From the viewpoint of the beneficiaries, Medicare has been extremely popular. If it ain’t broke, etc, etc. The current Republican notion of the codgers happily using a voucher to buy their own coverage privately boggles the mind—unless, of course, your mind has been clouded by the delirium of winning an election. Even Newt Gingrich was never that giddy.

The fundamental flaw in Ryan’s plan is that he wants to do more than make Social Security and Medicare actuarially sound for the long haul. He wants use them to solve the deficit problem. The Republicans seem to believe they were elected to reach a balanced budget without raising taxes on the affluent or large corporations—indeed, the Wisconsin congressman wants to slash taxes further—and without cutting the Defense Department, which even the powers at the Pentagon recognize can be prudently reduced.

Chairman Ryan and his allies seem to think they have tapped a fresh spring of popular resentment of federal spending. In fact, that anger has been evident even in flush times when the debt wasn’t counted in billions. In a letter to Mario Cuomo 20 years ago, Moynihan described the Social Security program as “the great success of Big government in our time: Fifty years of benefits now, never a day late or a dollar short,” then added: “Yet a majority of unretired adults do not believe benefits will be there when they retired.”

If Moynihan were alive today, he would see that nothing has changed. These Republicans still frighten voters with visions of an old age in poverty and frailty. They still equate profligate spending on defense with “supporting our troops,” and they still insist raising taxes on the richest Americans will “hurt the economy.”

When enough people believe such nonsense, it’s easy to think you can get away with anything, for a while anyway.

Jack Germond has been covering national politics and Washington since 1960. He spent 20 years with the Gannett papers, then eight with the still-lamented Washington Star and more than 20 with the Baltimore Sun. He and his partner Jules Witcover wrote a syndicated column five days a week from 1977 through 2000, and four books about the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. Germond's memoir is called Fat Man in a Middle Seat—Forty Years of Covering Politics; he has just completed his first novel. He and his wife Alice live on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia where he enjoys watching the birds and playing the horses.