The Comical Cult of Paul Ryan
Not since LeBron James announced "The Decision" to "take my talents to South Beach" have so many Americans waited with bated breath for one man to declare his intentions. Hoping for white smoke from the chimney of his Janesville, Wisconsin home, most Republicans and even some Democrats are hoping that Paul Ryan will decide to run for Speaker of the House of Representatives and thus save the GOP from itself.
While Mitt Romney's 2012 running mate and current House Ways and Means Committee chairman remains huddled with family in his Badger State conclave, politicians and pundits sing Paul Ryan's praises in almost hagiographic terms. Josh Marshall noted that "a defining principle of modern Republican ideology is that 'Paul Ryan is awesome'." Jonathan Chait argued that Ryan "is already the president of Republican America" because "no other figure within the party combines Ryan's philosophical radicalism and tactical pragmatism." While Ryan begs off by describing himself as "a policy guy," his GOP colleagues describe him as "the only eligible candidate" because he is "super, super smart" and "uniquely gifted and qualified for that position." As one unnamed Republican who spoke to him on Friday explained to CNN, Paul Ryan is a like a modern mix of Cincinnatus, George Washington and Jesus Christ:
"He's in a tough spot because he knows he's the only one who can do it."
But if the conventional wisdom is that Paul Ryan is selfless, brilliant and "the only one who can fix things" for his party, the reality is something altogether different. A quick glance back at his record reveals a self-promoting opportunist who has erected a 21st century Potemkin façade to mask his staggering intellectual dishonesty and political cowardice, a losing war against basic math, shocking condescension towards women and the poor and a reactionary governing philosophy that would turn back the clock to the Gilded Age. And that means Paul Ryan is uniquely qualified not for GOP Speaker of the House, but Republican Turd Polisher in Chief.
Consider, for example, Chris Cillizza's fawning over "his annual budgets that make hard choices about where money is spent (and not spent) by the government." As it turned out, Rep. Ryan's first "alternative budget" of the Obama era had no numbers in it at all. When the House Republican leadership with great fanfare initially released the GOP budget proposal in late March, it was greeted with guffaws. The 19 page outline was detail-free, failing even George W. Bush's test ("It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it."). And while Rep. Ryan boasted "while we criticize, we propose," Minority Leader John Boehner went much further:
"Two nights ago, the president said we haven't seen a budget yet of the Republicans," said House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). "Well, it's not true, because here it is Mr. President." He waved a thin document called "The Republican Road to Recovery" that describes the GOP proposal.
The DNC's National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan summed up the consensus reaction in his response:
"After 27 days, the best House Republicans could come up with is a 19-page pamphlet that does not include a single real budget proposal or estimate. There are more numbers in my last sentence than there are in the entire House GOP 'budget.'"
So the next week on April Fool's Day--you can't make this stuff up--Ryan returned to pronounce that Boehner's was merely a "marketing document." Rep. Ryan clarified further, "The thing you saw last week was not the alternative budget, this is our alternative budget," adding, "'Somewhere along the line there was a misimpression given that that was our budget."
And what a budget it was. For a nation experiencing a catastrophic recession, as the Washington Post reported on April 2, 2009, the draconian spending reductions to partially finance a tax-cut windfall for the wealthy would have been catastrophic.
After getting blasted last week for presenting a budget plan light on details, House Republicans yesterday unveiled a more complete proposal that would cut taxes for businesses and the wealthy, freeze most government spending for five years, halt spending approved in the economic stimulus package and slash federal health programs for the poor and elderly.
Beginning with his "Roadmap for America's Future" in 2010, Paul Ryan would roll out yet another version of his "Path to Prosperity" budget. Every spring, 95 percent of Congressional Republicans would vote it. And despite minor tweaks along the way, Ryan's annual House GOP budgets always had the same general contours.
For starters, Ryan would provide tax cuts to the wealthy that would make George W. Bush look like Karl Marx. While the corporate tax rate would be lowered from 35 to 25 percent, the capital gains and estate taxes would be eliminated altogether. The current code's seven tax brackets would be condensed to just two: 10 and 25 percent. The trillions of dollars lost to the United States Treasury would only be partially offset by $4 trillion in spending cuts, two-thirds of them to programs for low-income Americans. Obamacare spending would be repealed, though its $700-plus billion in Medicare savings over 10 years would be pocketed by Uncle Sam to help pay for Ryan's tax cuts. Combined with the cuts to Medicaid spending and it conversion into block grants for the states, Ryan's supposedly prosperous path would mean between 38 and 44 million people would lose their insurance. All told, non-defense discretionary spending as a percentage of the American economy would drop to its lowest level since 1950. Meanwhile, Medicare health coverage provided by the government would be replaced by an under-funded voucher scheme that would inevitably ration care by significantly shifting costs onto future seniors. And as we'll see below, Paul Ryan's budget blueprints would add between five and six trillion dollars in new debt over and above what the CBO projected for the federal government in the ensuing decade.
Paul Ryan's 2010 budget proposal called for something else: the privatization of Social Security:
Rep. Paul Ryan, (R-WI) the ranking Republican on the budget committee, recently detailed the Republican plan for Social Security that preserves the existing program for those 55 or older. For younger people the plan "offers the option of investing over one-third of their current Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts, similar to the Thrift Savings Plan available to federal employees."
As Jonathan Chait recounted in April 2012, Paul Ryan made George W. Bush's "fuzzy math" seem brilliant in comparison:
In 2005, when Bush campaigned to introduce private accounts into Social Security, Ryan fervently crusaded for the concept. He was the sponsor in the House of a bill to create new private accounts funded entirely by borrowing, with no benefit cuts. Ryan's plan was so staggeringly profligate, entailing more than $2 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, that even the Bush administration opposed it as "irresponsible."
Make that doubly irresponsible. As the Bush Recession which began in December 2007 illustrated, steep downturns on Wall Street could imperil those private retirement accounts. Just as daunting, as Vice President Al Gore explained to George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, "the trillion dollars that has been promised to young people has also been promised to older people, and you cannot keep both promises." As Matthew Yglesias summed it up:
What privatizers want to say is that current retirees will keep getting benefits and future retirees will be okay despite our lack of benefits because we'll have private accounts. But current retirees can't get benefits if my money is in a private account. And my account can't be funded if I'm paying benefits for current retirees.
Mercifully, the idea of Social Security privatization was as scary to Paul Ryan's GOP colleagues in 2010 as it was to the American people in 2005. But if private accounts for Social Security disappeared from future Ryan budget plans, the privatization of Medicare did not. And no matter how he reworked it, Ryan's Medicare plan would be very bad news for America's growing population of retirees.
Ryan's first crack called for killing Medicare altogether, giving the elderly a voucher to apply towards the purchase of coverage from private insurers. But by 2030, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) warned, "the beneficiary's share would be 68 percent" of the premiums and out-of-pocket costs in a typical Medicare plan. As Ezra Klein explained in the Washington Post in February 2010:
It's hard, given the constraints of our current debate, to call something "rationing" without being accused of slurring it. But this is rationing, and that's not a slur. This is the government capping its payments and moderating their growth in such a way that many seniors will not get the care they need.
In response, Ryan protested one month before the passage of Obamacare:
"Rationing happens today! The question is who will do it? The government? Or you, your doctor and your family?"
Of course, Congressman Ryan left out the real culprit responsible for leaving 50 million Americans uninsured and another 25 million underinsured: the private insurance market.
Nevertheless, Ryan has continued to rely on the private insurance market to reform Medicare despite the government's far lower overhead and cost growth. "Vouchers" have been replaced with "premium supports." Ironically, Ryan has preserved traditional "public option" Medicare as one of the choices on his insurance exchanges. Still, due to private insurers cherry-picking healthier seniors, Ryan's Medicare reform will mean, as the CBO found in 2012, "that new beneficiaries could pay up to $2,200 more by 2030 and up to $8,000 more by 2050." (For that, Politifact named Ryan its "Health Care Policy Maker of the Year in 2011.) Ironically, as Klein pointed out at the time about the plan Ryan hatched with Alice Rivlin:
If Ryan-Rivlin will unleash ferocious innovation that holds costs down, then so too should the Affordable Care Act. So at the end of our conversation, I asked Rivlin, who supported PPACA, if I was missing something. She laughed. "I keep talking to Paul and trying to convince him of that," she said. "But even if he agreed with me, he couldn't say so."
But that's not all Ryan couldn't say. Despite calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Ryan's budget schemes all keep the $716 billion, 10 year savings Obamacare uses to help pay for Obamacare. Again, Klein summed it up:
Every Ryan budget since the passage of Obamacare has assumed the repeal of Obamacare. Kinda. Ryan's version of repeal means getting rid of all the parts that spend money to give people health insurance but keeping the tax increases and the Medicare cuts that pays for that health insurance, as without those policies, it is very, very difficult for Ryan to hit his deficit-reduction targets.
Not just difficult, but impossible. CBO has repeatedly found that repealing Obamacare will increase the national debt, precisely because the ACA saves and raises more revenue than its 10 year cost. When Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) triggered the shutdown of the federal government in the fall of 2013 over Obamacare funding, House Democrat Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) highlighted the hypocrisy at work:
[House Republicans] have to explain to the American people how they voted for a budget that includes all of the Medicare savings from ObamaCare, that includes the same level of revenue generated from ObamaCare and, in fact, would not even balance in 10 years, if not for the Affordable Care Act.
But Paul Ryan's budgets would never balance in 10 years for a much bigger reason. Thanks in large part to his tax cut bonanza for the rich, Ryan had a $5 or 6 trillion hole to fill.
The reason why is simple. Every year, Paul Ryan promised to "lower rates" and "broaden the base." But "broadening the base" means closing or curtailing at least some of the tax breaks, loopholes and credits that cost Uncle Sam about $1.4 trillion in revenue every year. But like his 2012 running mater Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan in over five years hasn't had the courage to identify a single tax expenditure he'd end.
During the 2012 campaign, Rep. Ryan described himself and Governor Romney as "courageous." Faced with oceans of red ink as large as $6 trillion in the various incarnations of his budget, Paul Ryan offered a magic formula for plugging the mammoth hole. He explained it to MSNBC's Morning Joe in March 2012:
Get rid of the special interest loopholes, special deductions, lower everybody's tax rates, bring in at least as much revenue to the government but grow the economy and create jobs, and get spending under control so we can pay off this debt.
But that answer only raises another question: Which of these "special interest loopholes" and "special deductions" would the Republicans' favorite wonk get rid of? Will Ryan call for limiting or ending the $99 billion-per-year home mortgage interest deduction? The $58-billion Earned Income Tax Credit Ronald Reagan called "the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress?" The $52 billion lost annually to the deduction for charitable giving? More than three years later, it's a question Paul Ryan still refuses to answer.
Not that he hasn't had plenty of opportunities to do so. As Paul Krugman explained in "Pink Slime Economics" in April 2012:
We're talking about a lot of loophole-closing. As Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center points out, to make his numbers work Mr. Ryan would, by 2022, have to close enough loopholes to yield an extra $700 billion in revenue every year. That's a lot of money, even in an economy as big as ours. So which specific loopholes has Mr. Ryan, who issued a 98-page manifesto on behalf of his budget, said he would close?
None. Not one. He has, however, categorically ruled out any move to close the major loophole that benefits the rich, namely the ultra-low tax rates on income from capital. (That's the loophole that lets Mitt Romney pay only 14 percent of his income in taxes, a lower tax rate than that faced by many middle-class families.)
As Matthew Yglesias pointed out that same spring, in Ryan's 13-page description of his tax reform vision, those politically tough choices were completely missing:
Thirteen pages dedicated to explaining his vision for revenue-neutral tax reform. And even so he manages to not name a single tax deduction that he's planning to eliminate. Home mortgage interest deduction? I dunno. Electric vehicle tax credit? I dunno. Deductibility of state and local income taxes? I dunno.
Ryan has admitted as much. When Joe Scarborough asked "Which one of those [loopholes] do you eliminate," Ryan decided discretion was the better part of:
"We want to do this in the light of day and in front of everybody. So the Ways and Means Committee, which is in charge of the tax system, sent us the plan here, which is a 10 and 25 percent bracket for individuals and small businesses, and then they want to have hearings and, in light of day, show how they would go about doing this."
Appearing on CBS Face the Nation just days later, Ryan again claimed that "We're proposing to keep revenues where they are, but to clear up all the special interest loopholes, which are uniquely enjoyed by higher income earners, in exchange for lower rates for everyone." But he once again pleaded the Fifth when asked which "special interest loopholes" he would do away with:
"That's what the Ways & Means Committee is supposed to do. That's not the job of the Budget Committee," Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. "What we're saying is, we want to do this in the light of day, not in some backroom deal. We want to have hearings in the Ways & Means Committee that Chairman Dave Camp has already started that work, to say what tax benefits should go."
But much to the dismay of then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Dave Camp (R-MI) finished his work in early 2014. When the going got tough, the outgoing Ways and Means Committee chief made the tough calls on loopholes he'd limit, deductions he would cap, and tax breaks he would end. But when Camp delivered it in February 2014, it was dead on arrival. And it was the Republicans who killed it. Holding the smoking gun was Camp's successor at Ways and Means, one Paul Ryan.
He's a leading voice for Republicans on fiscal policy but Rep. Paul Ryan is noticeably restrained when it comes to his party's new blockbuster tax plan.
While applauding Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp's "courage" for releasing a comprehensive tax overhaul on Wednesday, Ryan (R-Wis.) ducked questions on the proposal's substance. He simply said he's excited to start a conversation about rewriting the tax code.
"This is the beginning of a good debate," Ryan said in an interview.
A beginning and, as it turned out, the end. Because by then, Paul Ryan had moved on to a new scheme for slashing government and taxes, "dynamic scoring."
That's right. Having guaranteed red ink as far as the eye could see by promising to close trillions in loopholes and then chickening out when it came time to say which ones, the "zombie-eyed granny starver" came up with a new magic trick:
If the Math Still Doesn't Work, Change the Way Math Works. When it comes to the ending $500 or $600 billion in tax breaks every year, the politics of producing a "revenue-neutral" budget are brutal and the math is even worse. So, Paul Ryan is demanding the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) use so-called "dynamic scoring" to magically generate new revenue from the extra economic activity his rate cuts theoretically produce.
During the 2012 campaign, former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett revealed exactly what Ryan and his GOP colleagues had in mind by forcing the CBO to use dynamic scoring:
My concern is that the Republican effort is just a smokescreen to incorporate phony-baloney factors into revenue estimates to justify unlimited tax cutting...In other words, it is an issue of credibility. Republicans don't really care about accurate revenue estimates; they just want them to show that tax cuts pay for themselves, so they can pass more of them without constraint.
That is precisely what has come to pass now that Republicans control both houses of Congress. Not only is the CBO under new GOP-selected Director Keith Hall adding dynamic scoring to its assessments of legislation, virtually all of the 2016 Republican candidates are doing so as well. Thanks to comically optimistic "dynamic scoring" forecasts, the likes of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump (among others) have magically erased trillions in budget deficits their massive tax cut plan would inescapably produce. And how does Paul Ryan describe what could rightly be brushed off as Unicornomics?
"He also noted that he prefers the term 'reality-based scoring' over 'dynamic scoring.'"
Speaking of reality, Paul Ryan has been known to occasionally acknowledge it when it comes to the national debt. In 2011, he echoed the words of new Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and insisted, "You can't not raise the debt ceiling." He should know; along with Boehner and Mitch McConnell, Ryan voted for all seven of President George W. Bush's debt limit hikes, including a "clean" bill raising the ceiling $800 billion in 2004. And with Uncle Sam's annual deficits plummeting under President Obama, Rep. Ryan like Boehner in March 2013 acknowledged, "We do not have a debt crisis right now." (Ironically, the Obama administration has already hit the deficit targets set by the Simpson-Bowles Commission of which Paul Ryan was a member. Of course, Ryan voted against its recommendations because they included raising taxes.)
Nevertheless, by December 2013, Ryan was once again joining Tea Party hardliners in threatening to hold the debt ceiling hostage:
"We as a caucus -- along with our Senate counterparts -- are going to meet and discuss what it is we're going to want out of the debt limit. We don't want nothing out of this debt limit."
When Congress voted in February to unconditionally spend the debt ceiling for a year, Ryan voted no because "it was a 'missed opportunity' for policy makers to address the growing debt." And now, with the annual budget deficit down by two-thirds since President Obama first took the oath of office, the Man Who Could Be Speaker is once again toying with a sovereign default by the United States. Apparently, he no longer believes that is "the unworkable alternative." With the support of the "Default Protection Act" which recently passed his House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan wants to simply redefine the meaning of "default":
The measure, dubbed the "Default Prevention Act," says that if the U.S. hits its debt ceiling of $18.1 trillion later this year, the Treasury Department shall issue new obligations "solely for the purpose of paying" principal and interest on existing debts, and for financing Social Security payments.
In a nutshell, the "super, super smart" Paul Ryan is trying to miraculously shift the blame away his fellow Republican extortionists for what Speaker Boehner warned would be "financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy."
"All this does is say the federal government is not going to default on its bonds. If you don't want the government to default on its bonds, vote for this bill. If you want to play with fire, and you want to tempt fate by possibly having default, then vote against it."
It's no wonder S&P blamed Republicans for the Tea Party downgrade of 2011. It's also no wonder why former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill proclaimed "the people who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al Qaeda terrorists." And it's no surprise at all that Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman referred this week to Ryan potential House leadership role as "The Crazies and the Con Man."
Paul Ryan's con games hardly end with taxes, the budget and the debt ceiling. Ryan repeatedly criticized the Fed for its "quantitative easing" program designed to help jump start the struggling U.S. economy. Despite the utter absence of U.S. inflation then or since, then House Budget Chairman Ryan warned, "the inflation dynamic can be quick to materialize and painful to eradicate once it takes hold." Even though inflation was running well below two percent at the time, Ryan slammed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2011:
Mr. Ryan all but accused Mr. Bernanke of devaluing the dollar, saying, "There is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens than debase its currency."
Ryan was completely wrong. But when he isn't channeling Ron Paul on the money supply, the GOP's Chosen One is regurgitating all of the party's tried but untrue talking points about poverty and the poor. years before the self-proclaimed anti-poverty champion and second coming of Jack Kemp warned about the "tailspin of culture in our inner cities" bred by "generations of men not even thinking about working," he was singling out "makers and takers" and complaining about turning "the safety net into a hammock." It's bad enough that Ryan's decades-old dog-whistle to Republican hardliners that the "urban" poor are neither deserving of nor likely to benefit from federal action conveniently ignores the fact that two-thirds of Americans in poverty are white and disproportionately live in the South and in rural areas. It's even more galling to hear from a man who has advocated lavishing enormous new tax cuts for the gilded class. It's no wonder he had to stage a bogus 2012 campaign photo op of himself washing clean dishes at a soup kitchen. It's even less surprising coming from an Ayn Rand disciple who, like his idol, benefitted from Medicare and Social Security.
In 2005, Ryan explained the debt he owed Rand:
I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are...the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.
Just not, it would seem, when it comes to an individual's right to choose an abortion.
Like John McCain during the 2008, Paul Ryan mocked "the health of the mother." Ryan's jaw-dropping disregard for the health and safety of American women came during the 2000 debate over the so-called "partial birth abortion" bill. As NPR explained, the very rare intact dilation and extraction (used only 2,200 times out of 1.3 million procedures performed in 2000) was resorted to precisely to protect the health of the woman in certain late-term pregnancies. The alternative, NPR noted, "can involve substantial blood loss and may increase the risk of lacerating the cervix, potentially undermining the woman's ability to bear children in the future."
Mitt Romney's future running mate was having none of it. During House debate on April 5, 2000, Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin told the House that "the women I have spoken to wanted nothing more than to have a child and were devastated to learn that their babies could not survive outside the womb. They made difficult decisions with their doctors and families to terminate pregnancies, to preserve their own health and in many cases their ability to try to have a child again." Afterwards, Paul Ryan rose to denounce that position:
Mr. Speaker. I just have to take issue with the comments that have been preceding this debate. This is not a political issue. This is a human issue. Let me just say this to all of my colleagues who are about to vote on this issue, on the motion to recommit. The health exception is a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack truck through it. The health exception would render this ban virtually meaningless.
And so it goes.
While Paul Ryan mulls over his future in Wisconsin, the voices back in Washington tells us that he is young, fresh-faced, charismatic, a serious man, an ideas man, a policy guy, a budget expert and just brilliant. But you don't a Mack truck to drive through that façade. Ryan's words, numbers and history reveal a fraud and a charlatan. His politics and policies are immaculate deception, a gleaming, shiny veneer concealing the rot underneath. Like Trofim Lysenko in Stalin's USSR, Paul Ryan is the face of Republican pseudo-science. If Richard Nixon represented the dark side of the American character (as Robert F. Kennedy warned), Paul Ryan is its smiling visage.
Ironically, the only people aggressively challenging Ryan's reputation are his chronically dissatisfied allies who reside somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. As Erick Erickson put it this week:
There is a cult of Paul Ryan that is as strong as any cult of personality in American politics. It's just the people who eschew populism and conservative politics are the ones in the cult. And these people would never consider themselves part of a cult as they kneel in their prayer closets and thank God for Paul Ryan...
In a world of modern media, Ryan would make an attractive Speaker with a young, fresh face and a comfortable demeanor in front of the camera. But he would make it very difficult for House conservatives because to oppose Ryan is, in the minds of much of the press, to oppose conservatism itself.
For once, the almost always execrable Erick Erickson is almost making sense. As for Paul Ryan, he rarely does. And still the conventional wisdom peddlers nod thoughtfully in response.