Published for www.washingtonpost.com, March 30, 2012
The first time Rep. Paul Ryan presented his budget, it was supposed to be fatal for the GOP. Ryan, after all, was not only touching the entitlement third rail but also licking it. Even to some ideological allies, it seemed like a dangerous dare.
Now he has dared again. And the absence of an apocalypse is a victory of sorts. Americans are not suddenly enthusiastic about Medicare reform. But Ryan has made a sophisticated case for its necessity. His proposals have been generally embraced by congressional Republicans and the GOP’s likely presidential candidate. If Mitt Romney manages to win, the presentation of Ryan’s budget in 2013 would kick off a momentous national debate on the size and role of government.
Ryan, pulled to the phone from the House floor, is typically upbeat. “I believe this will turn in our favor,” he says. Ryan is all Wisconsin cheerful earnestness — the Boy Scout earning his federal budget badge. But this manner masks considerable ideological ambition. “We knew we were defining the movement,” he tells me. By setting out the case against unsustainable entitlement commitments, Ryan forced his GOP colleagues to pick a side, often against their will. The whole Republican Party will now defend and advance Ryan’s budget views — or suffer from their repudiation.
Ryan has no second thoughts. “It is morally right,” he says, “legally right, politically right.” And he is armed with more than confidence. Despite the criticisms of Ryan’s budget, it is simply correct on the biggest matter. By the 2030s, federal health-care commitments, along with interest on the debt, will consume just about all government revenue. Federal health spending is expected to grow from 5.6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to nearly 20 percent — about the modern average for the whole federal government. Maintaining “Medicare as we know it” and other unreformed health entitlements will make every other function of government as we know it impossible.