Ask most Republican politicians what they stand for, and they'll quickly pledge allegiance to the principles of limited government, restrained federal spending, and fiscal responsibility. But follow up and ask what policies are needed to achieve these goals, and the answers don't come as easily. In fact, to date, only one GOP legislator has drafted a comprehensive plan to cut spending, eliminate the deficit, and balance the federal budget.
Rep. Paul Ryan from Wisconsin is an energetic, wonky conservative who, at 40, has made it his mission to "fix the country's fiscal problem." And he's put forward a way to do so—a way that, at least in theory, could actually work. Ryan comes from a family of industrial earth-movers—the business, now run by his cousins, was started by his grandfather, and he helped out as a kid. They clear away obstructions so new foundations can be laid. And that's Ryan's goal, not just for the GOP, but eventually, he hopes, for the rest of America.
According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which produces Congress's official projections about the long-term fiscal effects of legislation, Ryan's Roadmap for America’s Future would zero out the deficit, balance the budget by 2063, and reduce Medicare's expected share of the economy in 2080 from a projected 14.3 percent of GDP to a mere 4 percent. The Roadmap also calls for a substantial simplification of the tax code and a replacement of the corporate income tax with an 8.5 percent business consumption tax. CBO's projections are inherently uncertain—even the most competent economic forecasters can only guess at how the world will change over 50-plus years. But the result is, at the very least, a compelling conservative vision of the country's fiscal future.
In other words, it's a thoroughly radical idea. But talk to Ryan about the plan, and he'll insist that, despite all evidence to the contrary, drastic as it sounds, the American people are ready for it. "They know the fiscal situation's bad," he tells NEWSWEEK. "They know this debt is wrong. They know we've got a problem." Yet despite its concerns about the deficit, the public is also deeply attached to Social Security and Medicare.
And that's why Republicans are so skittish about Ryan's plan. Indeed, it's not clear that many of his fellow GOP legislators are willing to sign up for Ryan's hard-core brand of fiscal responsibility. Electorally, his plan may be more of a problem for the GOP than a solution. To date, his proposal, which is actually an update of a plan he initially put forth in 2008, has a mere nine cosponsors—mostly conservative stalwarts. A number of prominent Republicans, including presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty and House Minority Leader John Boehner, have explicitly declined to support the proposal. At the same time, GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell, Michael Steele, and Newt Gingrich have all released statements staunchly opposing cuts to Medicare—the same sort of cuts that are crucial to Ryan's plan.
So Ryan's proposal is instructive not only because it clarifies the difference between liberal and conservative policy, which is that serious reductions in government mean serious reductions in popular entitlements; it's also instructive about the road ahead for the GOP.
Republicans are expected to see significant electoral gains in 2010, and those gains are likely to come amid boisterous criticism of President Obama's spending and deficits. Yet few GOP legislators are willing to point to specific programs they'd like to cut, much less draw up all-in-one, multidecade budgetary solutions. That Ryan actually is—and that the result is such a political hot potato—creates a potentially awkward situation for the GOP, which has been largely content to criticize Obama without offering a substantive agenda of its own.
Negativity frequently reaps benefits for minority parties, but it can make it difficult to succeed once the tables are turned. It also makes the party look petty and critical rather than positive. According to Kristin Soltis, a pollster with the Winston Group, a Republican-affiliated polling firm, "What Republicans need is to push the message that they can be trusted as responsible governors." That would mean producing plans to match spending to revenue, rather than demanding tax cuts, increased defense spending, and maintaining entitlement spending all at once.
But is that something they're willing to do? Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, says that Ryan's plan offers "one of the few serious plans in Washington." Yet he worries that "it is far too serious for today's Republicans."
It's serious enough for the president, though, who, in a nationally televised exchange with House Republicans, went out of his way to call Ryan's proposal "a serious plan." Indeed, the Obama administration has seemed eager to play up the Roadmap. In addition to Obama's mention, White House budget director Peter Orszag discussed it in detail during a recent meeting of the House Budget Committee (for which Ryan is the ranking Republican), and said that "it does address our long-term fiscal problem," though in a way that "many policymakers might find objectionable." And that's likely why the Obama administration has been so unexpectedly kind to it: better for Democrats if Ryan's entitlement-slashing overhaul is seen as the Republican approach.
But, of course, it's not the Republican approach, it's Ryan's, a fact that his office has been forced to highlight. Ryan's staff prepared a response to criticisms of the plan that reads, "A Roadmap for America's Future is a legislative reform proposal offered by Congressman Paul Ryan. It is not the Republican budget." It's an awkward reminder that a Republican budget probably wouldn't include drastic cuts to Medicare.
That can't be good for Ryan's plan, but he doesn't like to talk about it. Asked about the barriers his own party has erected to entitlement reform, his response is a boilerplate dodge that begins, "I think we need to get beyond the old politics." Yet in the Republican Party, the old politics of pandering to seniors and posturing about unnamed spending cuts still rules. "The Ryan Roadmap is a test," says Cato's Tanner, "and right now the Republican Party is failing it."
Still, Ryan claims victory just for showing that "you can put these ideas out there and you can survive." Survive, yes, but thrive? Asked directly about his plan's limited political feasibility, he pauses for a minute, then shrugs and smiles, as if to welcome both the uncertainty and the challenge. "When I have it all figured out, I'll let you know."