Paul Ryan, Supervillain?


Rep. Paul Ryan will deliver the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union speech tonight, perhaps from a secret underground lair. As far as I can tell, the new Democratic line on Ryan goes something like this: He's the Republican mastermind who will destroy Social Security through a dastardly privatization scheme (bwa-ha-ha-ha! ahem.). He's not ransoming the world for a mere one beeeeeeeeelion dollars; he's slashing entitlements to the tune of hundreds of times that. Now that he's been granted sole access to the GOP's World-Shattering Budget Weapon, the rest of the Republicans in Congress are just his henchmen, and he will be free to implement his ultimate plan: the, er…Roadmap For America's Future, which doesn't sound scary, OK, but trust us, it is:

As the House cleared a key test vote on a resolution that would direct Mr. Ryan to cut most federal spending to 2008 levels, Democrats ripped into Mr. Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee and will celebrate his 41st birthday on Saturday. And they took direct aim at a long-term proposal he produced last year for balancing the federal budget called "A Roadmap for America's Future."

"We will be putting a focus on the fact that on spending matters, the Republicans are making judge, jury and executioner out of someone who, according to his Roadmap, wants to privatize Social Security," said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat.

A spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, went further, calling Mr. Ryan "the architect of a plan to end Social Security and Medicare" in a statement that also nodded to the House resolution, declaring, "Republicans are not only endorsing Representative Ryan's extreme plan but giving him unprecedented power to carry it out."

…"On these financial issues Paul Ryan has become the leader of the Republican Party," Senator Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont, said Monday.

And here's The Wall Street Journal (with bonus Bernie Sanders quote!):

Now, Republicans not only have made Mr. Ryan chairman of the House Budget Committee, but on Tuesday the House is expected to vote to give him unprecedented powers to force spending cuts for the current fiscal year. That authority will allow Mr. Ryan to act unilaterally in setting an overall spending level for the rest of the year, a job usually handled by his full panel.

…"Up until this point, the Republican leadership has been vague about what federal programs they want to cut," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats. "On the other hand, Congressman Ryan has been very clear on this subject."

If the picture still isn't clear enough, here's Katrina Vanden Heuvel warning that despite his wonky, nice-guy secret identity, "Ryan is an Ayn Rand-quoting zealot" whose "rhetoric is a barely varnished echo of the ravings of Glenn Beck."

Scary stuff! You can practically see him twirling his mustache. But what exactly is this master plan that Americans should be so fearful of? It's a plan to take the federal budget—currently humming down the path to fiscal disaster—and hopefully make it (gasp!) financially sustainable. It's a plan to ensure that Social Security, which started paying out more than it takes in last year and relies on an imaginary trust fund in order to keep its books, can actually afford its obligations. It's a plan to cap Medicare spending, and keep the growth of health care obligations from wrecking the federal budget by giving individuals the power to pick their own insurance plans. It's a plan that would make no changes whatsoever for anyone who is a decade away from the retirement age. It's a plan to balance the budget, eventually. Not now. Not next year. Not a decade from now, or even two. But in 2063.

Despite the implication that most of the GOP is now following Ryan's lead, it's also a plan that most Republican members of Congress have long been hesitant to endorse—and a plan that Ryan has explicitly said he will not impose this year. Those closest GOP leadership has come to giving the plan the nod is Majority Leader Eric Cantor's non-commital statement this week that "the direction in which the roadmap goes is something we need—we need to embrace." You see how they are all under his control, don't you?

So what's more telling: that Republicans have fretted so much about signing on to Ryan's plan? Or that Democrats and their defenders feel so threatened by Ryan's plan to reduce the deficit, leave entitlements exactly the same for a full decade, and balance the budget 52 years from now, when most of Washington's current political class will be covering boring disputes between the angels over St. Peter's gate-keeping policies? I'll let that be a cliffhanger. 

Meanwhile, back at the White House: What about our hero, President Obama? What will he do? How will he take down this existential threat? I hate spoilers as much as your next fanboy, but here's a preview of the next issue before it hits stands: Although the president will call for reducing the federal government's mammoth budget deficit, he will heroically not propose to cut Social Security. Super!

Read my Reason feature on Rep. Ryan here.