In the wake of last week’s big, drawn-out legislative compromise over the passage of America’s 2011 operating budget, attention has quickly shifted to the matter of future budgets, and how to best avoid the same sort of agonizing partisan horse-trading every time the government needs money. While America’s sky-high deficit and debt levels remain far from resolved, there seems to be a growing consensus that the time has come for a single, comprehensive, adult solution to dealing with these problems, rather than just a lot of falsely scandalized fear and self-righteous outrage over these very old, omnipresent fiscal concerns.
It’s in this context that Wisconsin GOP Congressman Paul Ryan, currently the House budget chairman, has stepped, releasing an ambitious “budget blueprint” that sets out strict guidelines for the next ten years of US spending, which, if followed, will supposedly get the nation’s fiscal house in order. The plan, which is far more heady, intellectual, and serious than much of what passes for Republican policy these days, received largely favorable coverage in the press — at least initially — and was widely celebrated as a “visionary” and “courageous” document in official GOP circles. On Friday the Republican-controlled House of Representatives easily passed the Ryan plan on a strictly party-line vote, and though the plan will never pass the Senate or get President Obama’s signature, it will nevertheless serves as a very clear and accessible artifact of the conservative agenda for a long time to come.
What makes the Ryan plan so “congrageous” in the eyes of many right-wing observers is that it’s extremley unapologetic and shameless in how far it takes the principle of spending cuts. After ushering in $100 billion in cuts for the year 2012 — almost tripling the cuts that were approved for this year — Ryan’s plan continues cutting at similarly high levels, year after year, for the next decade, lowering the amount of government spending as a percentage of the GDP, as one article put it, “to levels not seen since the first half of the 20th century.”
Such cuts will come at the expense of federal departments like education and environmental regulation, but significantly, also Medicare and Medicaid, which had, until now, usually been considered third rails to even the most heard-hearted GOP politician. While Medicaid will simply be dumped on the states to pay for, the Ryan plan retains federal responsibility for Medicare, but also beings a process of gradually privatizing the seniors’ program of subsidized health care. In the same way many Republicans advocate government-backed “vouchers” to allow parents to enroll their kids in private schools, and minimize the need for state-managed ones, Ryan advocates giving seniors insurance vouchers so they can purchase medical coverage from the private sector, rather than a government-run insurer.
It’s a divisive and controversial strategy to be sure, but the degree to which it’s at least “a plan,” as opposed to just a collection of talking-points, goes a long way to explaining why initial reaction, even among those who are not ordinarily GOP-backers, was so commendatory. As the days have passed, however, the tide seems to be turning a bit. Though the Ryan plan was indeed brave for its bluntness, it was also remarkably uncourageous in its deference to traditional conservative sensibilities and sacred cows. Bush-era levels of defense spending — ones that exceed even the spending seen during the Cold War — remain protected, as are Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. Corporate tax levels are likewise promised to be slashed down to 25%, a level that would swap America’s current status as the second-highest corporate tax region of the G7 to the lowest.
President Obama has already declared these conventionalities as evidence that the GOP is more the same than ever, and, in a speech last week, declared in some of his most robust language yet, that the era of compromise on the fundamental role of government was basically over. We need high taxes on the wealthy and big business in order to pay for the safety-net services government must provide, he said, using rhetoric that was clearly a gear-up to his 2012 re-election campaign. The Prez conceded that while some spending cuts will always be needed here and there, the idea of privatizing or abolishing the last remaining chunks of the post-war welfare state was a bridge too far, if not downright anti-American.
As Ryan was with conservatives, Obama’s latest non-compromising stance has been praised by liberals for its courage. But it’s just as conventional and safe. It’s clear that neither party is interested in comprehensive solutions to America’s fiscal mess, only plans that are half-solution, half voodoo magic. Raising taxes and cutting entitlement spending is a supremely obvious fix to any sort of fiscal imbalance, yet it’s also a plan that lacks an ideological, partisan tradition to defend it. If anything, it would require the backing of some sort of political leader who had a combination of both left and right wing ideas, and as we all know, such a creature is as implausible as a unicorn.