Is Paul Ryan a Reformer or a Radical?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has electrified the race by choosing Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. In the last day, the two have drawn big, excited crowds and have gotten rave reviews from conservative talking heads in the media.

Democrats were delighted, too, fanning out across the Sunday talk shows to tell anyone who would listen about Ryan’s plans to gut Medicare and Medicaid. in their view.

Ryan was eloquent in his first speech as vice-presidential nominee. “We are on an unsustainable path that is robbing America of our freedom and security. It doesn’t have to be this way,” he said. “Real solutions can be delivered. But, it will take leadership. And the courage to tell you the truth.”

So, there you have it: the Romney/Ryan ticket has reframed the election as a choice, not entirely a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy, effectively reversing a year of the Romney campaign’s efforts.

Rep. Paul Ryan speaks at George W.Bush Institute conference in New York. Photo: Howard R. Gold/The Independent Agenda

But what are they asking voters to choose? Ryan has laid out his plan in some detail. It would:

  • Cut federal spending by $5.8 trillion over ten years, nearly a trillion of that in discretionary domestic spending—the social safety net– which runs about $500 billion a year.
  • Keep military spending growing at the rate of inflation.
  • Eventually turn Medicare into a voucher plan in which “seniors can use [a set amount from the government] to buy private insurance or a government plan on an insurance exchange,” wrote Liz Goodwin of Yahoo News. That amount would rise along with inflation, but insurers could theoretically raise prices as much as they want, which would mean higher out-of-pocket costs for Medicare recipients. It would, however, grandfather in (no pun intended) everyone over 55 now, who can stick to the old plan. The Congressional Budget Office says “most elderly people would pay more for their health care.”
  • Turn Medicaid—which serves the elderly and the poor—into a block grant system in which the federal government gives states certain amounts of money, most likely much less than is projected now, to fund the program.
  • Eliminate some deductions and tax credits and institute two tax rates—at 10% and 25%. He would slash corporate tax rates to 25% from the current 35%. He would eliminate—that’s right, eliminate—taxes on capital gains, dividends, interest, and estates.

The only way Ryan might raise revenues is by dumping popular tax deductions, and like his running mate, he hasn’t specified how he’d do it.

Ryan explicitly rejected a more moderate approach when he joined two other Republicans and four Democrats on the Simpson-Bowles commission to vote against the final version of that commission’s report, effectively consigning its findings to legislative purgatory.

Why? Because Simpson-Bowles listed explicit ways to raise revenues, including some taxes, along with its very substantial cuts in spending–and Ryan didn’t think it went far enough on Medicare.

So, when Ryan had a real chance to build a consensus and get the most substantive recommendations on the US debt problem to the floor of Congress, he punted in favor of his own plan, which did take some controversial stands but is more in line with Tea Party/Grover Norquist orthodoxy. In that sense, he dodged the tough choices he always accuses other people of avoiding.

The Romney campaign has rhetorically distanced itself from the Ryan plan, but no matter: the two are now joined at the hip on a path that guts rather than fixes the social programs both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses have built over the last 80 years. If that isn’t radical, I don’t know what is.




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