You can say whatever you want about House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R- WI), but you can’t deny this—the man has cojones. Not just because his “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal takes a chainsaw to virtually every sacred cow in the federal budget, but because unlike everyone else in the game, he actually has a plan. That’s dangerous. And the contenders for the Republican nomination know that, hence their reluctance to say anything about it. Democrats know that too, hence their rush to bury it, before they’re forced to come to the table, not with meaningless platitudes, but with a serious counterproposal. There are, of course, deep problems with this plan—it makes too many unrealistic assumptions about economic growth and ignores Social Security, among other serious deficiencies. Nevertheless, Rep. Ryan has put a lot of chips on the table, and he isn’t bluffing. He has declared war on the national debt. Hold on, you might say, cutting spending now will hurt the economic recovery. We have to hold off on deficit reduction until unemployment goes down, otherwise we risk losing all the progress we’ve made in the last year. This is a valid argument and almost certainly correct yet utterly irrelevant. This fight is not really about whether or not to keep Big Bird on televisionthe relatively small realm of discretionary spending, no matter how much the Democrats want it to be. It is about two issues: the tax code and the structure of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the areas where real, potentially fatal, divides exist between liberals and conservatives. On discretionary spending, and even on Social Security, the process is predictable enough—Democrats go high, Republicans go low and the President signs a bill. But what kind of tax system are we going to have going forward? One that broadens the tax base and improves economic efficiency, or one that preserves a system of deductions and loopholes that is as corrupt as it is costly? Are we going to make the hard choices (read: benefit cuts and tax increases) that are necessary to reform and save programs like Medicare, or will we choke on the tough decisions and let the government go bankrupt in the long run? We’re running out of time. Within a few years, we will be running up against the limits of our creditors’ patience.
This is why Rep. Ryan is so important. This is why we should endeavor to save him, both from the army of pitchfork-wielding AARP members headed his way and from the great shortcomings of his own plan. He has framed the debate in a serious and substantive way; the ball is now in Barack Obama’s court. When the Senate’s Gang of Six presents its bipartisan debt proposal, now ten months in the making, it will be up to the President to decide whether he really meant it when he said that he’d “rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” If he washes his hands of the budget battle and allows reform to die, he will, in all likelihood, win reelection with relative ease. On the other hand, if he builds on the progress made by his April 13 speech on deficit reduction, then we may very well have reached a turning point in the struggle to rein in our runaway deficit. We can only hope. As Sgt. Horvath might say, maybe, just maybe, saving Chairman Ryan (and the U.S. economy) is the one good thing Obama is able to pull out of this God-awful mess.