Paul Ryan's Budget Plan: Be Everything Obama is Not


Photo credit: U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

One way to read Rep. Paul Ryan's budget is not as a collection of individual policies, but as a simple positioning statement: On fiscal matters, the Republican party would like to be most everything that President Obama is not.

Ryan's budget plan defunds ObamaCare, attempts to balance the budget in 10 years, converts Medicare into a premium support system, and block grants Medicaid. It calls for reducing the corporate income tax rate and, in the long term, aims to convert the individual income tax to a two–tier system with just two tax brackets, 10 and 25 percent.

It is, as much as anything, a reaction to an administration that says it has no intention of balancing the budget, refuses to consider structural reforms to Medicare even while admitting that its trajectory is unsustainable, insists that Medicaid cannot be touched, spent the last campaign pushing for higher tax rates on the wealthy, and now, after winning a battle for a higher top tax rate, continues to press for additional tax revenue in order to fund the government. It's almost binary: The White House says on, Republicans say off; Obama says yes, Paul Ryan says no.

I say almost because it's not quite true there's no overlap whatsoever. Ryan's plan would retain the revenue raisers in ObamaCare, for example—including the Medicare cuts he's criticized. And the White House has at times indicated it could be open to slashing various tax carve outs, along with rates, and in that context perhaps even reducing the number of brackets.

But Ryan's budget plan isn't substantially driven by points of agreement. It is driven instead by opposition to President Obama's priorities.

Sometimes—as with Medicare and Medicaid—that means declaring that President Obama would do is no good, and suggesting the outlines of an alternative. But at other times, it means declaring that what President Obama would do is no good, and then merely insisting that we should try to find something else to do.

It's telling, for example, that despite warning of the Democrats' "delay and deny approach to Social Security's looming bankruptcy," Ryan's plan merely calls for the president and Congress to submit plans to shore up the program's trust fund—without providing any details about what those plans might entail. The plan warns of the many problems in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, but then offers "revisit flawed financial regulations" as its "solution." That's not a plan to do something. It's a weak proposal to not do something, maybe.  

This is a problem that plagued Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, which defined itself almost entirely in opposition to the president, but never seemed to have an independent agenda of its own.

That's a dangerous place to be, in part because it can make someone seem like the bad guy: Screenwriting guides often instruct writers to create villains who are defined in opposition to the hero's goals. The hero is positive, the villain is negative; the hero for something, the villain against. There's a similar dynamic in political battles as well. 

Now, given the nation's dismal fiscal outlook and its sluggish economic performance, opposition is not necessarily a bad place for the GOP to start, especially as a minority party with limited ability to set the legislative agenda. But it's only a start. For Republicans to begin winning the fiscal argument with Obama, they'll eventually have to figure out more than what they're against—and make a sustained case that they're for something too.