The GOP has now made its intentions clear: Defend Medicare at all costs, now and forever. And in doing so, it's weakened one of the party's most promising policy reformers.
Even though the party's latest platform acknowledges that Medicare is the largest single driver of the debt, and even as the party has inched toward making reform of the seniors health program a priority, it has also declared its intention to protect and defend the program at all costs. The GOP would have us believe that Medicare is both the biggest problem and the biggest success in American government, wrecking our public finances but also in need of saving from the current administration's cuts.
On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney has declared that it was wrong for Obama to cut Medicare, and promised never to cut the program himself. Now Rep. Paul Ryan, the chief GOP proponent of Medicare reform in Congress and Romney's running mate, has thoroughly bought into this argument. Ryan's GOP convention speech tonight went all in on the defense of Medicare. "Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it," he said. And the reason to repeal ObamaCare is because of the way it upends the existing entitlement structure. "The greatest threat to Medicare," according to Rep. Ryan," is ObamaCare, and we're going to stop it."
This was a popular argument amongst a lot of Republicans while ObamaCare was being debated and in the months leading up to the 2010 mid-term election. But Rep. Ryan did not embrace it like some of his colleagues. I'd like to think that's because he saw it as self-defeating: A fiscally burdensome program that needs reform does not also need to be protected from cuts. Indeed, Ryan included essentially the same cuts in his own budget plan.
But now Ryan is leading the attack on those cuts from his perch as the party's VP nominee.
What we're seeing is the war between two Paul Ryans. He has always been a conservative policy reformer as well as a good party soldier. But when the two have come into conflict, the party soldier has almost always won. That's made him an effective politician, and helped him carry his policy case into the spotlight. But ultimately it will probably make him far less successful as a policy entreprenuer.
He made his name as an energetic Medicare reformer, someone who believed the program wasn't working, was too expensive, and needed to be changed. But tonight, in the most prominent speech of his career, he chose to defend the idea that the program was not only worth preserving but worth defending from any and all of the other party's cuts. That may or may not be good for his political career, but it's hard to see how it will be good for his policy reforms. He's helped join his party to the cause of mindlessly protecting the program he says he wants to reform.