Paul Ryan has laid down another marker. Pity he doesn’t have the power to lay down the law.
Representative Ryan has a budget, and the Democrats do not have one, nor do they plan to produce one. The proverb holds that you can’t beat something with nothing, but that is precisely what congressional Democrats are going to do with this Republican budget, just as they have with earlier iterations of the same concept.
Representative Ryan finds himself in much the same position as Senator Rand Paul: ready to lead, a bit short on followers. My recent pessimistic assessment of Senator Rand Paul’s presidential ambitions, and my equally pessimistic assessment of the political attractiveness of his (and my) libertarian tendencies more generally, has provoked remarkably intense and occasionally bitter discussion. Glenn Beck asked me why somebody who believes as I believe would write something like that. The answer is, because I believe it to be true. And it very likely is true of Representative Ryan’s bold budgetary vision as well.
My pessimism is rooted in my belief that there is not in reality a very large market for meaningful fiscal conservatism. People tell pollsters that they support balanced budgets and that they believe that our entitlement programs need to be reformed, and they tell them even more strongly that they oppose virtually all of the measures necessary to balance the budget or to reform entitlements. The question of Senator Paul is not really of urgent and immediate interest; 2016 is a long time from now, with many primaries and other events in between, and, if he should be the nominee, Senator Paul’s prospects will be shaped by important factors beyond ideology, especially the identity of his opponent. A presidential candidate doesn’t have to be a good candidate; he has to be the better candidate. Bob Dole probably would have beaten Michael Dukakis, and Mitt Romney probably would have beaten John Kerry. Alas, they were unlucky.
But 2016 questions aside (and we really should put them aside for the moment), we must consider the question of how large a market there is for fiscal conservatism, and to answer that we might consider what will become of Representative Ryan’s newest budget proposal. Representative Ryan’s newest budget is very similar to his previous submissions, which laid down important fiscal markers but went nowhere politically. His budget submissions have never been perfect — nothing in real politics is perfect — and Senator Paul called Ryan’s 2012 proposal “tepid,” which exemplifies the underlying problem: Representative Ryan’s sober and compromising approach to fiscal conservatism is not aggressive enough to satisfy deficit-and-spending hawks, but it is too aggressive for the revealed preferences of the American electorate, who have provided themselves with Harry Reid and Barack Obama to act as prophylactics against fiscal reform.
Critics on the right will say that this new budget is not the best we can do, and they are correct: It is by all appearance far beyond the best we can do at the moment. The American public would be lucky to see the enactment of this budget, which would reduce the deficit down to digestible levels quite quickly. But they have no apparent appetite for it. Representative Ryan performs his thankless task admirably, but he is peddling broccoli outside of Baskin-Robbins. And it’s pretty expensive broccoli: Taxes are to stay approximately where they are. The revenue-neutral (in theory) tax reform Republicans propose would be a welcome development, but the real game-changer would be substantially reducing the federal footprint on the economy.
Not that Republicans are above adding a spoonful of sugar to the fiscal medicine. In a telephone conversation with reporters yesterday, Representative Ryan explained that this budget differs from earlier iterations in that it more aggressively increases spending in one area: the military. “National defense is our first priority,” he said, and he is worried about expected reductions in the naval fleet and the army’s headcount. And he is right: National defense should be the federal government’s central concern when it comes to allocating scarce resources. But it does not follow that every dollar spent on the military is a dollar well spent or that the massive military appropriations in the current baseline are inadequate.
Republicans are right that you spend what you can afford on welfare but spend what you need to on national defense. But our current diminished role in the world results from the incoherent and contradictory policies of the Obama administration, not from our national unwillingness to deploy dollars. The Department of Defense and so-called overseas contingency operations in 2014 are expected to consume as much as the next 14 agency budgets — Department of Health and Human Services, Education, Veterans Affairs, National Intelligence Program, State, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Agriculture, NASA, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, and Labor — combined. And national-security spending is marbled throughout the rest of the budget, from the Department of Energy to the National Science Foundation. True, we’re better off when the National Science Foundation is funding military research than when it is underwriting a musical about global warming, but if that is to be our criterion, I’m moving to Brazil. It certainly would not make much of an inspiring platform.
Fiscal responsibility is a tough sell, but there is some low-hanging fruit. “Waste, fraud, and abuse” is generally the last refuge of a fiscal scoundrel, but there is an important exception to that rule: Medicare and Medicaid fraud, which by some estimates runs as much as $100 billion a year, possibly more. Federal auditors have found that the federal government’s data-sharing network intended to prevent Medicaid fraud is an incompetently run mess, rather like the Obamacare website. It is no slight to Paul Ryan to believe that any attempt on his part to explain to the American public that lower deficits today should lead to reduced interest rates sometime in the future and therefore stronger economic growth that subsequently contributes to what the CBO projects will be . . . Go ahead and take a moment to imagine the dead-eyed stare of those halfwits who twice pulled the lever for Barack Obama at this point in the conversation. As Adlai Stevenson observed, it’s not enough to have all thinking people behind you—you need a majority. “These bastards are stealing from us” is probably a more effective way to open up the entitlement-reform debate, and possibly to take down a few Democrat-leaning bag men, too. (You think that $120 million in Medicare fraud in Detroit is lining any Republican pockets? My personal favorite: the California scam in which people were paid $5 to attend sham addiction classes and then used the money to buy weed while alcoholism counselors were having bottles of Hennessy gift-wrapped for their clients.) And those bastards are indeed stealing from us, so here policy and politics are complementary.
“We owe the nation a balanced budget,” Representative Ryan said yesterday, “and a path for paying off our debt. This is about leadership, about governing, about showing the country a better way.” He is right, and House Republicans have made good on that obligation. This is a credit to them and to the House Republican leadership, which is too frequently maligned. The American people owe them something in return, that something being taking the opportunity to buck up and act like responsible free adults in a self-governing republic, and get behind a real reform program such as that being offered House Republicans.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The fault here is not Paul Ryan’s any more than the American addiction to government handouts and fat Pentagon contracts is the fault of Rand Paul. The political realities are what they are. What conservatives must moderate is not our policies but our expectations.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the author, most recently, of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.