Jacob Heilbrunn

Who's Scared of Paul Ryan?

To hear the howls of indignation about House Republican Paul Ryan's plan to cut the deficit, you would think he was proposing big budget cuts for the elderly. Oh, right, he is proposing that. Ryan's plan, if it deserves that name, is really a machete aimed at favorite Democratic entitlement programs, coupled with some tax cuts. Neither Democrats nor Republican presidential candidates want to go near it. You don't win elections by antagonizing one of the few segments that turns up at the polls.

But even if a lot of people regard Ryan as on what some are calling a "kamikaze mission," I give my points for tackling the deficit. No, his proposal isn't going to fly. It's a wish list rather than a practical proposal. A top rate of 25% for both individuals and corporations is most unlikely. But it helps point America in the right direction--toward cutting a national debt that is unsustainable. Ryan tackles, for example, grotesquely swollen farm subsidies as well as defense spending, which is supposed to be cut by $78 billion during the next five years. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is quoted in the Wall Street Journal, "These are the right kinds of ideas at the wrong moment." She is afraid that the Ryan plan would impede the "Gang of Six" in the Senate that's trying to come up with a bipartisan plan to curb the deficit.

That's not necessarily the case. The mood in Washington has changed, though it's not clear that it has in the rest of the country. Ryan's outre plan, which lops some six trillion off the deficit (at least in theory--it claims among other things that it will radically lower unemployment, which is doubtful), will make other proposals, which include more of a mix of tax hikes and cuts seem more reasonable.

Dana Milbank lambastes the Ryan plan in the Washington Post, observing


Had he been serious about reaching a budget agreement, Ryan would have offered something along the lines of the proposal of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, on which he served. Using a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, commissioners devised a formula that would reduce deficits by $4 trillion through 2020, stabilize the debt by 2014, and keep Social Security solvent for 75 years. A bipartisan group in the Senate is now working to draft a similar compromise.


But Ryan has added some more stimulus to the budget debate. The ire he's stirring among liberals may distract some attention away from the Senate. And Obama will certainly welcome any divisions among Republicans, who appear intent on shutting down the government. In other words, the 2012 campaign isn't about to begin. It's already begun. And Paul Ryan is the one who fired the starting pistol.