Politics & Policy

Ryan vs. Toomey

Republicans choose sides on whether Medicare reform is politically feasible.

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.”

Another senior GOP strategist tells National Review Online that Ryan’s plan for Medicare is “all risk and no reward” politically. Sure, it achieves massive savings by reforming Medicare, but those savings aren’t realized for decades. That is why a budget that balances in the near term and leaves Medicare alone would be “vastly better” politically for Republicans — and wouldn’t make any difference for Medicare spending until 2022.

“Frankly, if I was running Republican Senate races in 2012 — some of which I am — I would much rather be in a position defending a vote on the Toomey budget than defending a vote on the Ryan budget,” the strategist says. “It’s not a matter of which one is more conservative than the other, but which one is more sellable to the public.”

It is telling, the strategist adds, that Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is so eager to hold a vote on Ryan’s budget — minority leader Mitch McConnell, not so much. Should a vote come to pass, a handful of Republicans (Scott Brown, the Maine ladies, and perhaps a few others) will inevitably vote against it, splitting the party, whereas Toomey’s plan would be far more likely to win unanimous Republican support. Not only that, but the Ryan budget is a political gift to Democrats in 2012: Its Medicare proposals would offer them a way to deflect attention from their own records.

In other words, the election should be a referendum on the Obama presidency, not the House Republican budget. “Look, Ryan makes a great argument [on Medicare reform],” the strategist says. “It’s not that Republicans can’t win that debate. The problem is that we’re not really winning if what we’re debating is Medicare.”

A number of Republicans share this opinion, congressional sources say. However, it would be inaccurate to call it the prevailing wisdom. “Entitlement reform has got to happen,” a leading conservative advocate tells NRO. “You have to talk about it at some point, because you don’t want to end up in power without a mandate.” And Republicans would be wise to avoid a repeat of the Obamacare fiasco, which saw Democratic majorities forcing through an unpopular, transformative agenda that was not sufficiently explained or debated during the 2008 campaign.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee and one of the most vocal proponents of the Ryan plan in the upper chamber, says he disagrees with the notion that it would be wiser for Republicans to hold off on serious entitlement reform. “I think most Americans know we have to contain the growth of entitlement programs,” he says. “Certainly the Democrats are lying in wait, sharpening their knives, but I think the public will be accepting. They want us to show that we’re serious.”

A significant indicator of the support Ryan’s plan enjoys on the right was the uproar that ensued when Gingrich criticized it. Former education secretary and popular conservative radio host Bill Bennett called the former speaker’s comments “an unforgivable mistake” that had effectively removed his name from “serious consideration” in 2012. The conservative blogosphere was ablaze with cries of apostasy.

Meanwhile, House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) continues to dismiss suggestions that Republicans are “running away” from the Ryan plan. “That’s just not a fact,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “You can ask any one of our members, and they’ll tell you that on average, 80 percent of the people at these town-hall meetings were supportive of taking big steps to put our fiscal house in order.”

Sources close to Ryan say the congressman is fully aware of the political opposition to his proposals coming from within the GOP. And apart from a pointed jab at Gingrich — “With allies like that, who needs the Left?” — Ryan has remained focused on presenting a contrast with President Obama’s plan, which he did at great length (and to great effect) during his speech Monday at the Economic Club of Chicago. For instance: “Our plan is to give seniors the power to deny business to inefficient providers. Their plan is to give government the power to deny care to seniors.”

In fact, no one I spoke with believed that Republicans would be well served by a contentious intramural debate over the political wisdom of proposing Medicare reform, not least because 235 House Republicans are already on record in support of Ryan’s plan. And if Harry Reid gets his way, a majority of Senate Republicans will soon be as well.

With the 2012 presidential field finally beginning to take shape, candidates have so far been eager to embrace Ryan as the GOP’s “man with a plan,” but with an emphasis on the “man” and less so when it comes to specifics of the plan, namely Medicare reform. Of course, that is subject to change. Either way, Ryan backers aren’t concerned, and say they are encouraged by Pat Toomey’s contribution in the Senate and look forward to hearing the various proposals that prospective candidates will bring to table.

At the end of the day, the GOP is having a vigorous debate as to how to get the country’s fiscal future back on track, which is more than can be said about the Democrats, who have now gone nearly 750 days without passing a budget in the Senate, which they control. Or, as Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney told NRO: “Republicans agree we need to fix our fiscal mess, whereas Democrats can’t even agree that the government needs a budget.”

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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