The Corner

Thinking Through the Ryan-Murray Deal

I haven’t completely made up my mind about it. So I’m just going to think out-loud for a moment. 

As Christmas presents go, it’s certainly closer to a really sturdy pair of socks than it is to a new bike. And that raises the first point I think people should keep in mind: If you’re of a mind to oppose it, fine. If you’re inclined to support it, fine. But can we please dispense with the overheated rhetoric about it? It is neither a triumph nor an abject surrender. Attempts to turn it into the Defining Issue of Our Generation (until the next one at least), do not help the GOP or the cause in any meaningful way I can see. I’m all for shouting when shouting is necessary. But I don’t see any huge advantage in making the GOP the “shouting party.”

Which brings me to the deal’s chief selling point, at least politically. President Obama is melting like an Ozian witch in the shower because of Obamacare. The new NBC/WSJ poll is just plain brutal. His standing on almost every other issue has improved at least a little, but healthcare is still driving his overall approval down the drain.

It’s worth recalling that at one point or another both the “establishment” and the shutdown caucus have made the exact same argument: Don’t get in the way of the Obamacare disaster. During the shutdown, the “establishment” said let it fail on its own. During the debate over the Upton bill, the shutdowners said, “No, no. Let it fail on its own.” I bring this up not to re-litigate all of the nastiness, but simply to note that both sides of the intramural conservative debate understand that Obamacare’s unraveling is politically advantageous to Republicans — and the best argument in favor of getting rid of it.  Politically, the best thing about the Ryan-Murray budget is that it helps keep the conversation on Obamacare. A huge fractious battle over what amount to rounding errors in the budget and the debt could take the heat off Obama and hurt the GOP’s standing.

On the policy front, as the Wall Street Journal argues, the best thing about the Ryan-Murray budget is that it establishes a precedent for trading discretionary spending increases for mandatory spending cuts. The debt and deficit aren’t driven by pork, they’re driven by entitlements. The reforms in this proposal are pretty paltry, requiring a very modest increase in the contributions of federal workers to their pensions (new hires only). But the principle is right.  If I could bribe every congressmen in America with a new bridge or retirement home in exchange for really meaningful entitlement reforms, I would do it in a heartbeat. It also gives a gasping Pentagon some oxygen, which I think is important (though the Pentagon surely could stand some more structural reforms of how it spends our money). 

Of course you can argue the whole thing the other way around. And people I respect, like Tom Coburn, are. I find Coburn’s argument that there are much, much better things that should be done to be utterly incontrovertible. Whether, under these circumstances, they could be done is a much different argument. Other conservatives argue, fairly, that the existing sequester cuts are meaningful and we shouldn’t trade them for some magic beans and some praise for anything that smacks of bipartisanship. Bipartisan failure isn’t better than partisan success, they say. 

Moreover, some claim this is the time to press the advantage. Obama is weak, the Democrats are in rough shape and jittery over Obamacare.  I’m open to those arguments. But one thing I’d like to hear is how — exactly — making this into yet another huge existential battle will improve the GOP’s chances in 2014 and beyond and how it would keep attention on Obamacare. Again the stakes in this budget deal are small. The stakes in 2014 are huge. I’m all for greater policy victories than what we see in this proposal. But only if they are attainable — by which I mean attainable without getting on the wrong side of the cost-benefit analysis. The most common response to this is some version of the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” argument, or “you can’t win if you don’t fight.” That’s true, but every fight comes at a cost, too. 



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