CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated efforts by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to restructure Medicaid.
Forget all those Americans who are worried about their jobs or the state of the economy. Paul Ryan would rather talk about out-of-control Medicare costs or the impending debt crisis, obsessions he refuses to tame even during a critical election year. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan plans to yet again step into a political minefield this spring with another proposal to overhaul entitlement programs, including the wildly popular health insurance plan for senior citizens.
Ryan’s fellow Republicans in the House overwhelmingly went for a similar pitch last year—that is, until a liberal group ran an ad showing a Ryan look-alike pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff, to the tune of “America, the Beautiful.” Or until Ryan’s party lost a seat in a conservative district in upstate New York in May in a race that became a referendum on the GOP’s Medicare plan. Or until other powerful Republicans, such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, started to back away from Ryan, refusing to draft his plan into legislation, and Newt Gingrich referred to the plan on NBC’s Meet the Press as “right-wing social engineering.”
Yet, none of these caveats matter to Ryan. He seems tone-deaf to the potential political risks of his upcoming budget, so much so that it’s worth asking: Is this budget plan more important to him than, say, the Republicans winning the White House?
“Yeah,” Ryan says from his office on a recent afternoon. “The moral obligation to do something about the debt crisis trumps everything.”
Following this sense of moral duty is either the most head-scratching move a Republican could make during a presidential election year, or the hallmark of a savvy rising GOP star whose eyes are fixed on the long view.
By promising to put forth a budget heavy on transforming federally funded programs that help old and poor people, Ryan is handing the Democratic opposition machine fodder for attack ads. He is ignoring the recent exit polls from primary contests and key swing states such as Ohio that show voters care most about the economy. Not only that, but he’s playing into the Republican Party’s recent missteps by focusing on entitlement reform—much the way the GOP has harped on social issues, contraception, or public schooling in recent weeks—rather than just sticking to the question of job creation.
“The moral obligation to do something about the debt crisis trumps everything.”—Paul Ryan
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is gleefully prepping for the budget’s release. “House Republicans already alienated independent voters and seniors when they passed the first Ryan budget,” says Jesse Ferguson, the group’s press secretary. “We’re going to be aggressively holding them accountable for recklessly doing the sequel.”
And, if there were any doubt about the way the country feels about Medicare reform, just look at the bevy of polls over the last year. Seventy percent of Americans, according to a February survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, say they want to keep Medicare as a government insurance program with everyone receiving the same set of benefits.
In the long run, though, Ryan may prove to be more politically adept than some people think. After all, his constituents in his safe Wisconsin district adore him. “People here don’t perceive him as someone who is extreme. They see him as a serious legislator,” says Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin (Madison).
Ryan’s fellow House Republicans like him well enough that he ascended to the chairmanship of a powerful committee through which they run major fiscal policy. And, from this post, he has accumulated a cadre of disciples, such as GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a practicing physician who has followed in Ryan’s footsteps by pushing to change federally funded health insurance programs. Cassidy’s pet mission is setting per capita spending caps for Medicaid, a fitting ancillary to Ryan’s wonky love of redoing Medicare.
The main thing Cassidy says he has learned from the Budget chairman? “Ryan is willing to take the lumps,” Cassidy says.
The lumps should arrive on schedule later this month when the House Budget Committee unveils its blueprint of spending cuts and some type of health care overhaul. The budget, like President Obama’s, is not expected to go anywhere. But the new Ryan plan is likely to cast a shadow over Mitt Romney or whoever emerges as the GOP nominee as the party tries to shift the focus of the presidential race to issues more appealing to centrist general-election voters.
Still, by continuing to harp on the budget, the deficit, and entitlement programs, Ryan has accomplished two political feats, one for his career and the other for his party. First, he has positioned himself as a reformer or a politician of change, a stereotype he is eager to peddle to highlight the differences between the Republican Party and Obama.
Second, by continuing to repeat his doomsday vision of the fiscal calamity and the need to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid, he has arguably succeeded politically in making the idea seem mainstream, normal, and inevitable. It is well-known on the Hill now that any bipartisan compromise on the deficit in the future will force Democrats to give up ground on the entitlement programs. Even public sentiment toward Medicare reform is malleable, based on the way the issue is framed. According to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll, Americans are more open to tweaking Medicare when politicians call the cost of program “unsustainable” or talk about the threat of the program going bankrupt.
But no matter how Ryan phrases it this time around, the political risk is real—and Democrats are waiting to pounce. The question is whether the GOP can sustain another short-term hit for a potential long-term gain, both for the party and perhaps the country.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.