Ryan vs. Toomey
Republicans choose sides on whether Medicare reform is politically feasible.


Andrew Stiles

Liberals were so caught up in the effort to derail the House Republican budget resolution authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) that they barely seemed to notice when freshman senator Pat Toomey unveiled his own ambitious proposal to balance the budget in ten years without raising taxes. Instead, it was conservatives who were all too eager to denigrate Toomey’s effort: Just as the Left slammed Ryan’s budget for daring to reform Medicare for future generations, some on the right criticized Toomey’s budget for failing to do so.

Whereas the Ryan plan takes a more gradual approach, reaching balance in roughly 20 years and outlining changes to Medicare that don’t kick in until 2022, Toomey’s operates exclusively within a ten-year window, reaching balance in nine years without proposing a specific long-term solution for Medicare. This had some conservative critics up in arms.

“Let it be known that this is the day America’s financial future died,” said Fox News’s Neil Cavuto in a recent segment on Toomey’s budget. “Today tea partiers elected to the United States Senate not only caved, they quit. They folded their spending tent and left. And all because some Medicare recipients stomped their feet and roared.” Cavuto would later ask Toomey if he had “lost his nerve.”

Others were more diplomatic. Heritage Action CEO Michael A. Needham said Toomey’s budget “places some positive ideas on the table” but is “not perfect” in the sense that it neglects to address the unsustainable future of Medicare, which is “impossible to ignore.”

Toomey and his co-sponsors — a group that includes Sens. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Mike Lee (R., Utah), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) — were stunned that a serious proposal to balance the budget, at a much faster rate than the Ryan plan does, through dramatic spending cuts and pro-growth tax policies, would be the subject of so much scorn from the right.

Indeed, the reaction to Toomey’s budget emphasized the extent to which Medicare reform has become the defining element of Republican fiscal policy. But the proposal has also inspired some support, largely from those on the right who believe, as former House speaker Newt Gingrich recently told NBC’s David Gregory on Meet the Press, that Ryan’s daring Medicare reforms are “too big a jump” politically for the GOP.

While Gingrich also called Ryan’s plan “radical” and an example of “right-wing social engineering,” the heart of the conservative critique is driven mostly by politics and strategy, not policy concerns. Toomey, for example, who has been nothing but effusive in his support of Ryan’s Medicare reforms, recently wrote on National Review Online: “While Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid all require structural reforms soon, it is neither necessary nor politically feasible to take them all on at once.”

Even Gingrich later attempted to recast his remarks in mostly political terms. “‘Radical’ means that politically you can’t get to what Ryan wants from where we are,” Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler told The Weekly Standard. “It will be demagogued to death. ‘Right-wing social engineer’ refers simply to compelling people to participate without giving them a choice. That is a political mistake.”

Some Republican strategists agree with that assessment. Dick Morris recently wrote in The Hill that the GOP’s efforts to reform Medicare are a recipe for political disaster. Republicans are foolishly mistaken, Morris argues, if they believe the Tea Party is demanding cuts to Medicare. Indeed, many GOP freshmen won in 2010 by campaigning against Democratic cuts to Medicare. Voters would be much more inclined to support steep cuts to welfare programs like Medicaid, but cuts to Medicare are “totally unneeded and gratuitous.”

“House Republicans have set the stage for their own demise,” Morris writes. “House freshmen, if they wish to become sophomores, must demand that Speaker Boehner set a vote that permits them to undo their support for the Medicare portion of the Ryan budget.”