GOP's Choice of Paul Ryan to Give State of the Union Response Is Good for Democrats

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) Melina Mara / The Washington Post-Getty Images

On Friday afternoon, when congressional Republicans chose Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to give their official response to the State of the Union address, Democrats must have been thrilled. By most traditional measures Ryan is a good choice for Republicans; he is young, handsome, articulate, and affable. But that is secondary to the reason he was tapped. Rather, it is because Ryan has become the Republicans' ideological leader on fiscal issues, which are expected to play an important role in President Obama's address. House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement, "Paul Ryan is uniquely qualified to address the state of our economy and the fiscal challenges that face our country." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Ryan's "unique understanding of the fiscal problems we face."

The laurels are ironic, given that just a few months ago Republicans were carefully keeping their distance from Ryan's plan to restrain long-term deficits. Early last year he produced "A Roadmap for America's Future," which laid out a series of ideas that he said would reduce the federal government's long-term structural deficit and shrink the size of government. Among the plan's radical suggestions were proposals to replace Social Security with private savings accounts for workers who so choose, taxing employee health-insurance benefits as regular income, and replacing Medicare with a system of vouchers for seniors to buy private insurance.

Wonks in Washington were pleased. Ryan, unlike most Republicans, was willing to actually say what he would cut to balance the budget without major tax increases. Experts across the spectrum appreciated his intellectual honesty.

But Democrats were also excited by the political opportunity his plan presented. Last year Republicans were simultaneously bashing Democrats for deficit spending and opposing the cuts to Medicare spending in the health-care-reform bill. This drove Democrats crazy. If Republicans complained about the deficit and spending cuts, while proposing major tax cuts, their math didn't add up. But that's a complicated case to make to the average voter. It's much easier to say Republicans will take away your Medicare or Social Security. That's why Obama praised Ryan's Roadmap as "a serious proposal"—to build him up as the GOP alternative—and then congressional Democrats tore his plan apart.

Republicans, aware that senior citizens are much more likely to vote in midterm elections than young people—and that young people currently lean heavily Democratic—knew better than to endorse Social Security privatization and Medicare restructuring during election season. So they avoided discussing Ryan's Roadmap or articulating any other real plan to balance the budget. (Boehner said last summer that the GOP was not running on Ryan's Roadmap and that he had "doubts" about some of it.) The GOP's strategy worked: it won by 21 points among voters 65 and over in House races and consequently took control of the House of Representatives.

But now the Republicans are in the majority and tasked with responsibility for governing. With a bench that is thin on budget wonks, Ryan has been elevated to their leading voice on deficit reduction and economic policy. He chairs the House Budget Committee and is a senior member of the all-powerful Ways and Means Committee. The House is working on a resolution that would direct Ryan, as Budget Committee chair, to cut federal discretionary nonsecurity spending to 2008 levels. And with Republicans now sharing responsibility for America's fiscal future, they are warming to his ideas for long-term spending reduction. On Sunday, appearing on Meet the Press, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the GOP wants to have a "serious discussion" about Ryan's ideas for reforming entitlement programs.

This did not go unnoticed in Democratic quarters. On Monday Democrats vociferously attacked Ryan's agenda. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Ryan "the architect of a plan to end Social Security and Medicare." As The New York Times reports, Ryan "has emerged as the latest chew toy among Democrats." Even though, as Cantor emphasized on Meet the Press, Ryan's plan would change Social Security and Medicare only for people currently under 55, older voters consistently show the most antipathy toward privatization of entitlement programs. Democrats, knowing they must close that 21-point gap among older voters in 2012, would love nothing more than to drive a wedge between the GOP and its strongest age demographic by focusing on Ryan's plan. And Republicans have just made it that much easier for them to do so.

GOP's Choice of Paul Ryan to Give State of the Union Response Is Good for Democrats | U.S.