Why the GOP Loves Paul Ryan--and Loves Him Not
There's an old saying that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But when it comes to Paul Ryan and his radical GOP budget, Republicans would prefer to campaign in silence and then govern with an axe. While the Grand Old Party would love to enact Ryan's massive tax cut windfall for the wealthy, shredding of the social safety net, gutting of Medicaid and privatization of Medicare, Republicans hate having to talk about policies that are about as popular as the ebola virus. And as the history of Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" shows, that Republican discomfort increases as Election Day approaches.
Mitt Romney's own unease has been on display since the moment he first announced the House Budget Chairman from Wisconsin as his running mate. Romney has been quick to claim that he is running on his own budget, only to acknowledge "I'm sure there are places that my budget is different than his, but we're on the same page."
But as Politico and The Hill each reported Tuesday, among Republican strategists and GOP members of Congress that heartburn is approaching panic. "Away from the cameras," Politico noted, "there is an unmistakable consensus among Republican operatives in Washington: Romney has taken a risk with Ryan that has only a modest chance of going right -- and a huge chance of going horribly wrong." As The Hill explained:
Republicans strategists are worried that Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) addition to the presidential ticket will cost their party House and Senate seats this fall.
Their concern: Democrats will successfully demonize Ryan's budget plan, which contains controversial spending cuts and changes to Medicare...Many Republicans in tough races this year, especially in the House, voted for Ryan's proposal, which makes it hard for them to distance themselves from it.
Hard, indeed. After all, 235 House Republicans and 40 GOP Senators--98 percent of all GOP member of Congress--voted for Ryan's budget in 2011. (In 2012, the numbers were 228 and 41, respectively.)
But that near-unanimous Republican support for Paul Ryan's extremist blueprint after the GOP takeover of the House was a far cry the Party's relative silence before the 2010 midterms were won. Put another way, for three years the GOP's backing of the Ryan Roadmap has been directly proportional to the distance to the next Election Day.
2009: Republicans Love Paul Ryan
In April 2009, twenty four months before all but four House Republicans voted for Ryan's plan to ration Medicare, the smaller GOP minority said yea on essentially the same plan. As Steve Benen detailed in the Washington Monthly in the fall of 2009:
In April, 137 Republicans voted in support of a GOP alternative budget. It didn't generate a lot of attention, but the plan, drafted by the House Budget Committee's Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called for "replacing the traditional Medicare program with subsidies to help retirees enroll in private health care plans."
The AP noted at the time that Republican leaders were "clearly nervous that votes in favor of the GOP alternative have exposed their members to political danger."
2010: They Love Him Not
But in February 2010, Rep. Ryan unveiled his "Roadmap for America's Future" and its "slash and privatize" agenda for Social Security and Medicare. Because the value of Ryan's vouchers fails to keep up with the out-of-control rise in premiums in the private health insurance market, America's elderly would be forced to pay more out of pocket or accept less coverage. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein described the inexorable Republican rationing of Medicare which would then ensue:
The proposal would shift risk from the federal government to seniors themselves. The money seniors would get to buy their own policies would grow more slowly than their health-care costs, and more slowly than their expected Medicare benefits, which means that they'd need to either cut back on how comprehensive their insurance is or how much health-care they purchase. Exacerbating the situation -- and this is important -- Medicare currently pays providers less and works more efficiently than private insurers, so seniors trying to purchase a plan equivalent to Medicare would pay more for it on the private market.
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.
And despite the public's overwhelming rejection of President Bush's Social Security privatization gambit in 2005, Ryan doubled-down. As TPM summed it up:
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."
And in November 2010, potentially cost Republicans the House Majority they wanted so badly.
As you'll recall, the centerpiece of the Republicans' 2010 effort was an ad campaign to terrify the elderly about changes to Medicare Advantage and the growth of its funding contained in the Affordable Care Act. (Republicans would later go on to vote for exactly the same $500 billion in reductions over 10 years.) That was tough to square with the Paul Ryan's plan to ration Medicare by ending guaranteed health insurance for the elderly and replacing it with under-funded vouchers to buy coverage in the much more expensive private market. Which is why the party ran as far away as possible from Ryan's Roadmap for America before the actual voting took place?
In February 2010, then House Minority Leader John Boehner began distancing himself from Ryan's Roadmap, saying, "it's his." As the New York Times reported that July:
Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, the minority leader, has praised Mr. Ryan but said the Roadmap would not be a part of the Republican agenda this fall.
"There are parts of it that are well done," Mr. Boehner told reporters last month. "Other parts I have some doubts about, in terms of how good the policy is."
In fact, only 13 House Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors, and Republican leaders, hoping for gains in the fall and, ultimately, in 2012, seem concerned at the possibility that the Roadmap may eventually become something candidates will be forced to take a position on. After all, what candidate wants to talk about major changes to Medicare and Social Security?
Which was exactly right. With its steep spending cuts, Medicare rationing, tax cuts for the rich and Social Security privatization, a GOP midterm platform based on Ryan's Roadmap would have been about as welcome as flesh-eating bacteria. As the Washington Post put it in the summer of 2010:
Many Republican colleagues, who, even as they praise Ryan for his doggedness, privately consider the Roadmap a path to electoral disaster...
The discomfort some Republicans feel for Ryan's proposals goes beyond November. If Republicans were to take control of Congress next year, Ryan will rise to chairman of the Budget Committee. He could use the position to hold colleagues accountable for runaway budget deficits and make it more difficult for fellow Republicans -- and Democrats -- to stuff bills with expensive projects that add to the problem.
Even Ryan's closest political allies feared the blowback from his ideas. In 2010, GOP representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) joined in Ryan in publishing Young Guns. But even Ryan's co-authors were afraid to publicly back his reactionary plans. As ThinkProgress reported in August 2010, Cantor repeatedly refused to endorse Ryan's Roadmap. That September, his other co-author McCarthy lied about what was in Ryan's plan - and their book, pretending, "No one has a proposal up to cut Social Security. It's about protecting it."
For his part, Ryan in August 2010 acknowledged the GOP's then-allergic reaction to his Roadmap.
"While I am proud to have 13 House Republicans co-sponsor the legislation, and have been overwhelmed by the support outside the Beltway," he claimed, "my plan is not the Republican Party's platform and was never intended to be."
Early 2011: New House Majority Loves Him Again
Of course, Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America was always intended to be the Republican Party's platform. Just not until after Election Day.
The new House Speaker, John Boehner reflected the GOP's public change of heart towards the Ryan scheme. Stripped of its private Social Security accounts, the Roadmap with its Medicare vouchers, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid block grants, and drastic cuts to discretionary spending became the House GOP budget proposal. And as the vote on Ryan's 2012 House budget document in April 2011, the once-timid Boehner jumped in with both feet:
"I fully support Paul Ryan's budget, including his efforts on Medicare."
Summer 2011: They Love Ryan Not. Again.
Within weeks of its passage, Republicans' new-found love for Paul Ryan's radical ideas once again began to sour. Their ardor was tempered both by a raft of polls showing just how unpopular the House budget was really was with voters and by the looming Republican presidential primary race which would put the GOP field on record.
That summer, GOP pollsters found Ryan's plan so "toxic" to voters that they warned their members "not to go there." Polls from NBC and CBS revealed that an astonishing 76% of Americans were unwilling to accept cuts to Medicare. Surveys in key swing states showed much the same divide. And a 2011 AP/GfK survey found that 72% of respondents said Medicare is "extremely" or "very" important to their financial security in retirement. (A year later, a National Journal poll showed that Americans rejected Medicare voucher schemes by a 2-1 margin.)
So the great retreat began.
Less than two weeks after declaring his full support, an uneasy Boehner told ABC News:
"Paul Ryan has an idea that's certainly worthy of consideration in terms of how do we -- how do we do this in a more efficient way?" said Boehner, R-Ohio.
"I'm for it," Boehner continued. "It's our idea. Right? It's Paul's idea. Other people have other ideas. I'm not wedded to one single idea, but I think it's -- we have a plan."
Watching her lead vanish in New York's solidly Republican 26th Congressional District, Jane Corwin reversed course on her support for the Ryan voucher plan. (Corwin lost to Democrat Kathy Hochul.) White House hopeful Michele Bachmann "put an asterisk" next to her vote for the bill, announcing, "I'm concerned about shifting the cost burden to seniors." Newt Gingrich, who in the 1990's expressed his desire to see Medicare "wither on the vine," tied himself in knots after describing Ryan's rationing gambit as "right-wing social engineering." Meanwhile in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously accused Democrats of "sticking it to seniors with cuts to Medicare," refused to endorse Ryan's plan. As McConnell admitted to Chris Wallace of Fox News:
"Candidly, Chris, none of these budgets are going to become law."
But that was then and this is now. Now, Mitt Romney could become President of the United States and Republicans could control both houses of Congress and together they could make the Paul Ryan budget roadmap the law of the land. But not if they talk about it between now and November. Because for Republicans, Paul Ryan is the love that dare not speak its name.