While there are certainly many casual political observers outside Wisconsin who remain unfamiliar with Congressman Paul Ryan and his Roadmap for America’s Future, Version 2.0, I’m convinced a majority of Wisconsin’s political junkies have already reserved tickets and hotel rooms for January 21, 2013, to witness the swearing-in of Vice President-elect Paul Ryan. And I admit I’m as guilty as anybody – well, my good friend Christian Schneider might be taking the Paul Ryan watch to another level.
Needless to say, Ryan is getting a lot of attention, and rightly so. But interestingly, the focus on Ryan is increasingly spreading beyond Wisconsin. Just last week Ryan was featured in both the New York Times and the Washington Post. And while conservatives enjoy bashing the main-stream media, if we are honest, we would all admit we take pride when somebody like Ryan is featured in the New York Times.
Ryan’s Roadmap is substantive, clear, and direct. It focuses on the long-term entitlement funding gap that nobody in Congress wants to think about, as if ignoring the problem will make Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid remain solvent for the next generation. However, in some ways, the message is bigger than any one politician. Conservatives and liberals alike are paying attention to Ryan because his message focuses on core problems facing this country that have the potential of impacting future generations while undermining America’s preeminence.
Unfortunately, as the two articles point out, the national GOP leadership, the very group that should be embracing Ryan’s plan, is so focused on winning in November that they appear unwilling to adopt any substantive plan for governing. It’s frustrating to see a “muted” response, or even worse, a collective “wince” at the Plan. Such an approach is bad politics and more importantly, further poisons the hyper-partisan environment that is D.C. politics.
The reasons for the significant praise and attention Ryan is receiving are numerous. On a superficial level, after years of having to shield children’s eyes from the collective death stares of Cheney, Hastert, and Rumsfeld, conservatives are happy to have a leading figure that is energetic, young, and enthusiastic. On a deeper level, after conservatives were forced to bear John McCain’s painful explanation during the 2008 debates of what was going wrong economically in the country and the plan moving forward, we are glad to have a leader that is able to adequately convey a coherent economic message. Ryan has a deep understanding of economic policy, and it shows.
However, the recent attention is most significant for an even deeper reason – while it obviously helps that Ryan possesses all of the above qualities, commentators are so excited to have Ryan articulating a sound fiscal message because it actually addresses the issues which have the potential of defining this country for the foreseeable future. While the Plan is almost 90 pages long, its focus is simple – providing health and retirement security, lifting the debt burden, and promoting American job creation and competitiveness. And while Ryan offers a positive message with clearly articulated solutions, he does not beat around the bush in noting if things don’t change, we could end up like Greece.
So this begs the question: why isn’t the GOP leadership embracing Ryan and his message?
The reason is significant. The national GOP leadership has apparently taken a page right out of Al Davis’ playbook – just win baby (I can’t believe I’m quoting the crazy owner of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders within the context of a relatively serious political commentary). The leader in particular who has been the biggest disappointment is John Boehner, the likely Speaker of the House in the event the GOP reclaims a majority come November.
The fact that Boehner has “doubts” about parts of the Plan “in terms of how good the policy is” is troubling. It begs the question of how committed the party’s leadership is to tackling the fiscal crisis facing this country. However, the lack of backbone extends to the likes of Newt Gingrich, seen by many as the leading intellectual of the revitalized conservative movement within the GOP. He has offered a less than enthusiastic endorsement, saying the Plan is a “good starting point.” Even Ryan’s own colleagues in the House have not fully jumped on board. Only 13 of 178 Republicans in the House have agreed to co-sponsor the Plan.
National GOP leaders appear afraid to adopt any coherent message for November. Instead, the strategy seems to be one where we sit on our hands and hope the American electorate remains angry through the fall. If they aren’t willing to stand by Ryan’s plan, what would be acceptable? And some might point to the results from Tuesday’s primaries in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, and Minnesota as evidence that embracing certain conservative policies can produce negative results.
However, there is a big difference between arguing that bike paths are the product of a conspiracy within the United Nations, as the Colorado gubernatorial candidate has, and arguing that entitlement programs and government spending in general need to be controlled. Put another way, if by “extreme” we mean policy positions which are admittedly outside the mainstream of political thought, there are certainly some ideas being discussed which would fit in that category, such as abolishing the Department of Education or eliminating the Federal Reserve.
Tackling the funding gap for entitlement programs and advocating a restructuring of the federal tax code most definitely are challenging positions, ones which require an ability to clearly describe a problem and articulate a solution, but these are not extreme positions. There is a big difference between “difficult” or even “courageous” policy positions and “extreme” ones.
This is troubling for many different reasons. If the GOP takes the approach of governing slightly to the right of the current Democratic Congress, otherwise known as the “Dem-light” strategy, they will have missed a once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally alter the political dialogue and focus on fundamental problems facing the country. I say once in a generation because it appears that independents are going to give the GOP a shot, which is amazing in light of the elections of ’06 and ’08, when fiscally-minded independents absolutely punished the GOP for its lack of focus during the Bush years.
And possibly more significant, self-identified “tea party” folks and libertarian-leaning independents have for the most part avoided a third-party track and are instead working within the GOP to encourage conservative candidates to run on fundamentally conservative messages.
The GOP, for its part, has been able to somewhat balance the needs of disappointed independent voters looking to the GOP and libertarians who are looking to the GOP to provide fiscally sound governance. However, national GOP leadership appears unwilling to embrace the Ryan plan because it might appear too extreme. This is bad policy and bad politics.
After the Bush years and now the extreme Obama policies, the American electorate is craving substantive ideas. Running on a platform of “we’re not the Democrats” is not what people are looking for. Providing health and retirement security, lifting the debt burden, and promoting American job creation and competitiveness are the very issues the American electorate is most concerned with. These just so happen to be the three main elements of the Ryan Plan.
Refusing to offer a real plan to the American people is bad for the country and frankly not a good political strategy. After being handed stinging defeats in ’06 and ’08, GOP leaders should be thankful disillusioned independents are giving the GOP a second chance. If the GOP fails to adopt an approach like Ryan’s, I’m confident they will not be given another shot. The Ryan plan addresses the real fiscal issues facing this country head-on.
The national GOP would do well to embrace the Ryan plan, one which “draws on Americans’ strengths to restore the Nation’s legacy of leaving the next generation better off.”
-August 19, 2010