No sooner had Paul Ryan formally unveiled his latest version of the House Republican budget Tuesday morning than Democrats and media critics started tearing it to shreds. It was a “fraudulent” document, advocating “class warfare on behalf of the rich” and “social engineering with a side of deficit reduction,” whose policies were “as stale and odiferous as a garbage can holding the carcass of a dead dog.” Conservatives had a few harsh words of their own.
But Ryan, who is making his return to the public spotlight following his unsuccessful bid for the vice-presidency, has heard it all before, and once again refuses to shy away from a fight. Those expecting a chastened, watered-down version of his previous efforts were bound to be disappointed. This year’s budget achieves balance within a decade without raising taxes, though it incorporates the tax-rate increases from the fiscal-cliff deal. It also seeks to repeal the cornerstone of President Obama’s first term: Obamacare.
Liberals are particularly incensed that Republicans would have the nerve to call for full repeal, which seems like political fantasy on its surface, in the wake of the president’s convincing reelection victory. Even some conservatives have questioned the idea of refighting old battles, as opposed to confronting the new reality with new solutions. But Ryan is sticking to his guns. “So just because the election didn’t go our way, that means we’re supposed to change our principles? We’re supposed to just go along to get along? We reject that view,” he tells National Review Online in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “A budget is supposed to be a display of your vision,” he adds. “Our vision is a world without Obamacare.”
Ryan points out that Obama was not the only one who was returned to power in 2012; House Republicans maintained their majority. “We’re here, and we won our elections based on limited government, economic freedom, and we should not shy away from espousing those views,” he says.
In what liberals are sure to describe as a fit of denial, Ryan argues that Republicans are actually “much better positioned” to advance conservative policy alternatives during Obama’s second term than they were during the 2012 campaign. He predicts that once Americans begin to feel the practical effects of Obama’s policies, many of which have yet to be fully implemented, they will “yearn” for change. Voters may have endorsed such policies in theory, but according to Ryan, they are in for a rude awakening when Obamacare and other aspects of the president’s agenda take full effect over the next couple of years.
“I think it’s different now that the rubber is hitting the road with respect to Obama’s policies,” Ryan says. “We ran against the Obama policies before they were implemented. Obama was able to protect them with his rhetoric, but he was never measured against his results. Now, in the second term, they’re implementing these things, they’re putting details in writing, regulations are coming out, and we’re seeing just how different these proposals are than the rhetoric that was used to sell them.”
He expects Obamacare, in particular, to “collapse under its own weight” when more and more Americans are kicked off their current health-insurance plans (something Obama promised wouldn’t happen), health-care premiums continue to rise, and the Medicare advisory board (IPAB) goes online and begins the forced rationing of care. Under those circumstances, Ryan argues, repeal is not out of the question. “I don’t want to say we’re going to enjoy going around the country saying ‘I told you so,’ but we’re going to have to say ‘I told you so, and here’s a better way,’” he says.
Working off the Ryan budget, House Republicans plan to advance legislation to reform health-care and entitlement programs, expand energy exploration, and replace the current tax code with a simpler, pro-growth alternative with lower rates and fewer loopholes. “We’re going to be advancing more specifics on these big issues of the day to show that Republicans are ready to govern, and that we have better ideas for tackling these problems,” he says. Ultimately, the goal of this year’s budget is to lay the groundwork for a “down payment” on the $16 trillion national debt.
For the first time in nearly four years, both houses of Congress will fulfill their legal obligations to pass a budget. The Senate Democrats’ proposed budget, which is set to be unveiled on Wednesday, is expected to call for a net increase in federal spending over the next decade, and a tax hike in the neighborhood of $1 trillion. It will never achieve balance, or come close to resembling the House plan. But the mere existence of a Senate budget, Ryan hopes, signals a return to regular order in Congress, which could potentially “move the ball” towards a bipartisan compromise, however minimal. “We’ve been in a stalemate for four years,” he says. “I’m very critical of the Senate’s budget, but at least they’re doing one. Let’s use this process to go through regular order to get an agreement.”
What would that look like? Ryan insists that raising taxes is a nonstarter; it’s bad policy and would “kill” bipartisan efforts to reform the tax code. “All Democrats really want is more tax increases to fuel more spending, and we’re just not going to join that party,” Ryan says. He doesn’t see a “grand bargain” in the offing either. An achievable outcome, he argues, would be “taking some of these spending cuts [in the GOP budget] and passing them through. Will they take all $4.6 trillion of our additional spending cuts? No. But let’s take some of them.”
Although Ryan has shown no signs of backing down on the policy front, he is seeking to change the way he and his Republican colleagues talk about the budget. The rhetoric surrounding this year’s budget rollout has echoed some of the themes he touched on in the poverty speech he delivered on the campaign trail in October. “What I don’t want to do is make this look like it’s an accounting exercise, a green-eyeshade exercise,” he says. “I see balancing the budget as a means to the end. And the end to me is a more flourishing economy, is improving the lives the people.”
And Ryan continues to push back at the Left’s portrayal of him as a radical Ayn Rand fanboy out to “fundamentally transform the relationship between Americans and their government,” in the words of the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. “I guess every one of us at this level in politics has their political narrative that the Left or the Right tries to cast upon you, has their urban legend,” he says. “I guess this is my urban legend.”
This year’s budget is also catching flak from the right, of course. But whereas prior efforts were dressed down for not balancing fast enough, now conservatives are criticizing Ryan for using the higher tax baseline resulting from the fiscal-cliff deal. He says “we can live with” the new revenue line, provided the tax code is replaced “with a better system.” Some have also questioned Ryan’s reluctance to install premium support for Medicare sooner; he notes that he has always proposed allowing current retirees to opt into the program. Others have echoed the argument that Obamacare repeal is a gratuitous fantasy, and second-guessed the emphasis on reaching balance in ten years. “We always got close,” he says. “We wanted to get the debate focused not on if we balance the budget, but on how we balance the budget, because it’s doable.”
Last week, Ryan had what he says was the first “real conversation” he’s ever had with President Obama, over lunch at the White House. Ryan doesn’t know if the president’s recent outreach efforts are genuine or not, but he remains doubtful that the administration, which has “yet to put on paper how they would stop the debt crisis,” is serious about solving the nation’s financial problems.
Nevertheless, Ryan doesn’t think conservatives should pack it in just yet. “I don’t see this last election as the end of this story,” he says. “I see it as a chapter in this story. A story for the fight over the soul of America, and I believe that the chapter we’re entering is one where conservatives have a better chance of triumphing, because the president’s actual proposals don’t add up and people are going to see that.”
– Andrew Stiles is a political reporter at NRO.