The Wisconsin congressman’s budgets have given the president a chance to assail Republican dogma.
Easter is a minor gift-giving holiday in the American calendar, and for the last year—and counting—President Obama’s Easter gift has come in the form of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. Last year, Ryan penned the “Roadmap,” a budget document for House Republicans that laid out their priorities for the long-term: deep cuts to existing social programs, deep cuts to Medicare, and big tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans. With the Tea Party at the height of its power, Republican lawmakers were eager to sign on to Ryan’s “right-wing social engineering” (to borrow a phrase), even if it was anathema to public opinion.
For a president who was floundering in the eyes of liberals—who wanted to see a little more fight—this was a godsend. In a speech at George Washington University, Obama posed his vision of “balanced” deficit reduction against Ryan’s plan to funnel money away to the richest Americans. He didn’t attack the Wisconsin congressman by name, but he challenged his ideas, and the notion—held by many pundits—that he was somehow “courageous” for writing a plan to toss poor people into the streets. It was a wonderful thing to watch:
The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. […] There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.
A good amount has changed since this speech. The Obama of 2011, a lukewarm, centrist deficit hawk, has given way to the Obama of 2012, a populist warrior for the middle class, helped along by a steady and improving economy. Their shenanigans over the debt ceiling have made House Republicans incredibly unpopular, and his continuous push for tax cuts on the rich has begun to wear on Paul Ryan’s credentials as a deficit crusader.
In this environment, the smart thing to do—if you’re a Randian crusader turned influential lawmaker—is to lay low. If you have to write a budget, move away from the explicit attacks on government, and release something that’s a little more palatable to the median voter. Your presidential nominee can walk away unburdened by radical positions, and if he wins, you can return to your previous plans.
With his “Path to Prosperity,” Paul Ryan took the opposite approach; he’ll double-down on his push to give money to the rich, and—for the second time—bring the GOP with him. Both congressional Republicans and the GOP presidential candidates have signed on to Ryan’s sophomore budget, as if there’s something popular about a slightly-less obvious plan to kick future grandmas off of Medicare and plunder the savings.