Paul Ryan is ready to show his stiff upper lip.
The House Budget Committee chairman finds himself at the center of a national debate over Medicare and, clearly reveling the fight, is using British metaphors to explain his desire for a top-to-bottom debate over his budget blueprint and the massive restructuring of Medicare it envisions for every American 55 and younger.
“This is a Churchillian-type of moment in history,” Ryan told National Journal. “The polls are predictable. They are regrettable. But this is a unique time in our history. We can’t go wobbly.”
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Winston Churchill carries a dual metaphorical meaning for conservatives. They invoke him as someone who was politically scorned and isolated for warning of a foreseeable but underappreciated danger--Adolf Hitler. They also see Churchill as indefatigable and heroic in summoning British grit, perseverance, and tenacity in the face of the Nazi blitz.
Many Americans revere Churchill for these same qualities, and the adoration is by no means uniquely Republican. But Republicans claim Churchill more frequently than Democrats. Ryan’s reference to “wobbly” is straight from the Iron Lady--former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher--who famously told President George H.W. Bush after the United Nations approved a resolution enforcing an embargo on Iraq that “this was no time to go wobbly … and we must not let the faint hearts grow in strength.”
Ryan, in essence, intends to be Churchill and Thatcher as the debate over Medicare's future intensifies. And Ryan thinks this is his moment.
“I was made and wired for this type of thing,” he said in an interview from his Capitol office late Thursday. “We are on the right side of history. We are ready. I talked to at least 100 Republican members in the last two days. They all told me, 'We gotta go, we’ve got to defend this.’ They are not queasy. They are all saying, ‘Put me in coach.’ Our members are comfortable.”
Ryan said from the start that the budget he proposed and won near-unanimous support in the House (only four GOP members dissented) and sizable support among Senate Republicans (four opposing it because it went too far and one, Rand Paul of Kentucky, opposing because it didn’t go far enough) is neither dead nor dying. He acknowledged that party pollsters advised House Republican leaders that his Medicare proposals would create political hardships.
“We knew that already,” Ryan said. “But our minds are in a different place. These new people, the 87 freshmen, they are cause people, not career people. They are all more about the cause than their career. We had hoped Democrats would try to be our legislative partners. We now know they will use demagoguery and scare tactics. That just sharpens our focus.”
Ryan sounds ready, and he is not alone.
Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., said that Republicans had to press forward with the Ryan plan to turn Medicare into a program supported by direct payments to seniors, but he harbored some anxiety that GOP leaders might back down. “I’m worried they are worried,” West said. “We need to stay strong.”
House Democrats believe the results in the New York 26th District special election prove that a Democrat can focus on the Medicare issue and prevail--and will be able to do so next November. “We don’t want to read too much into this, but they have given us the central issue,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “And we will use it, and we feel very good about our chances.”
Ryan said that Republicans “have time on our side” and will use the intervening months from now until next November to contrast their plan with the lack of a coherent Democratic alternative. “We have led. The president’s budget didn’t receive a single vote in the Senate. “
House Democratic aides were quick to counter that Republicans used aggressive Democratic policy proposals on health care, climate change, the stimulus, and financial regulatory reform against them and prevailed in 2010. “Republicans will lose,” one House Democratic aide said flatly. “We led in the last Congress. We were bold. We had plans. We did the things President Obama promised in the campaign. And we lost.”
Ryan acknowledged part of the Democratic hostility to his plans for Medicare arise from residual resentment over GOP attacks on the $500 billion in Medicare cuts included in Obama’s health care law. Republicans relentlessly attacked Democrats for the cost savings (and the double-counting of them described by the Congressional Budget Office).
“The weaponization of entitlement reform has been used by both parties,” Ryan said.
Despite Ryan’s will to fight, there are signs that House GOP leaders are moving on from the Medicare debate. They unveiled a job-creation bill on Thursday and next week will vote on a “clean” debt-ceiling bill that’s bound to fail because it doesn’t contain spending cuts. But since the White House, through Vice President Joe Biden, has already agreed to negotiations over spending cuts as part of debt-ceiling compromise, next week’s strikes many Democrats as a mindless theatrics.
“They are trying to change the subject,” another House Democratic leadership aide said. “The debt issue works for them. Unlike Medicare. They are getting away from that.”
Ryan’s budget is a blueprint. It sets parameters for underlying policy--and the bills to make that policy come to life. But there is no sign the Ways and Means Committee will draft legislation to transform Medicare along the lines the Ryan budget envisions.
Two senior GOP lawmakers told NJ the Budget and Ways and Means committees met privately this week to plot strategy. Ways and Means will back the Ryan plan by holding hearings on its implications but is not planning on drafting legislation in the near future.
Even so, Ryan’s budget has now become something of a purification test for Republican presidential candidates. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, after a brief phase of neutrality, said on Thursday that he would sign legislation enacting the Ryan plan. Doubtless, top-tier GOP contenders Mitt Romney and John Huntsman will face similar questions. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign suffered a severe--possibly debilitating setback--when he dubbed the Ryan plan “radical social engineering from the right” and then back-tracked.
Ryan said he doesn’t consider his budget a litmus test for GOP presidential aspirants. Not entirely, at least.
“That would be fairly presumptuous,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t have to be our plan. But I don’t think anyone can go out there and not put your ideas out there. But if you apply conservative principles to the budget and debt problems, it’s going to look a lot like this plan. It would be wrong for us to insist that every single idea in our proposal be in a candidate’s plan. But, you’ve got to be ready to solve this problem.”
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This article appears in the May 27, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.