David Frum

03.13.13

Say No (For Now) to the Ryan Budget 3.0

Win McNamee/Getty Images ()

The New York Times' Ross Douthat isn't a fan of the Paul Ryan Budget 3.0:

In effect, it sacrificed seriousness for “seriousness,” by promising to reach budgetary balance not over the long term (as budgets 1.0 and 2.0 did) but in a ten-year window. This is not going to happen, and more importantly there’s no reason why it needs to happen: Modest deficits are perfectly compatible with fiscal responsibility, and restructuring the biggest drivers of our long-term debt is a much more important conservative goal than holding revenues and outlays equal in the year 2023. What’s more, the quest for perfect balance leaves the House G.O.P. officially committed to a weird, all-pain version of Obamanomics — in which, for instance, we keep the president’s tax increases and Medicare cuts while eliminating his health care law’s assistance to the uninsured.

The result is a document that’s arguably more unrealistic than the previous versions of the Ryan budget, and that does little or nothing to bridge the gap between the Congressional G.O.P. and the electorate that just re-elected Barack Obama. To some extent, this gap exists because of Ryan’s own ideological commitments, but as Jim Pethokoukis points out, at least some of the ideas that would have improved this blueprint are ideas that the House budget chairman himself has championed in the past. The bigger issue is that many conservative House Republicans plainly feel like they’ve already been forced to compromise repeatedly of late — on questions like the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, and so on — and so they want their official budget to take a more absolutist stand. Hence the quest for ten-year balance, and the promise of pain on every front except (of course) marginal tax rates.

But let's just assume Ross is basically a liberal loving RINO who doesn't get politics. Let's say House and Senate Republicans fully endorse Ryan 3.0 and run with it aggressively in 2014.

Things look favorable for Republicans in midterms. But what's the message? It's basically this: "Debt is a scary thing. We've spent the past six years dropping apocalyptic after apocalyptic warning. If we don't change the total course of government now, we're doomed. That requires cuts for everyone, even the aged."

Paul Ryan confronted that message in 2012, when he faced the unenviable position of attacking Medicare cuts I'm quite certain he'd have supported were he not the GOP nominee. (Thus the awkward optics of the guy the Journal endorsed for his bold plans to reform entitlements being the attack dog against Obama's rather modest cost cuts to Medicare.)

That conflict aptly demonstrated the GOP's awkward "double bind," as Matthew Continetti put it in at the Weekly Standard.

The primary example: we ostensibly want to cut entitlements, yet our base is predominately composed of people who are maximally animated by opposition to entitlement reform. (Hence Paul Ryan's "not if you're over 55" line.)

Here's where the GOP ought to be aiming itself: a movement that embraces innovation, economic vibrancy, and upward mobility. In other terms, the party of and for the young and ambitious, rather than the aged and conservative.

But we're tied to a fearful base that demands we fix everything without changing anything. And we're facing an America that is shifting dramatically before our eyes.

My suggestion to the GOP: look around. We don't have the White House and we're the minority in the Senate.

But we've got the House, you might say. Good! Hold the Senate to its promise and demand a budget that will break the cycle of using continuing resolutions to fund government. Use the budgetary process to restrain government's growth, but recognize there's not much that can be done right now. You want to meaningfully shrink the federal government, rather than take a serious of meaningless votes that make the base feel good? Win back the White House.

And perhaps most important, drop the defunding ObamaCare gambit. It will fail, and the moderate Congressmen who fall prey to the idea will find quickly that the new leaders of the pack hail from districts and states where reelection isn't a concern. They're safe to be as hardline as they'd like, but the GOP as a whole should try out a Democratic example. (And not from 1992).

The big story of 2008 was Obama sweeping into Washington with big majorities in the House and Senate. Those majorities gave him ObamaCare, a big stimulus for green energy priorities, pet labor projects, and an overall expansion of government.

But the story quickly forgotten was what made those majorities possible: winning a host of swing seats in 2006. Democrats aggressively pushed into areas previously considered inhospitable territory by moderating their message, picking their battles with extreme caution, and speaking to realistic fears and concerns of everyday Americans. (Perfect example: the Democrats ran a competitive candidate in my home district, Nebraska-3, which is among the most conservative districts in the country.)

The big picture of moving to the center isn't about becoming soft or squishy: it's about expanding our coalition so our policy objectives can match our philosophical goals. As long as the GOP is the party of the Medicare/Social Security voting population, we won't seriously reform entitlements. So the answer isn't to kowtow to the aged. It's to attract enough younger voters so we can win elections on our own.

Will the GOP emulate that strategy, or are we going to see if there's any possible room left to veer right? I certainly hope we don't choose the latter.

And by the way, when we get to 2020 and the sky doesn't fall, voters will be totally thrilled by our focus on a "debt crisis," am I right?