Home/Daniel Larison/The Crazy, Inexplicable Demand Revisited

The Crazy, Inexplicable Demand Revisited

It would be a great and fitting irony if the victory of Democratic scare tactics in NY-26 spooks other Republicans into backing off from bold deficit reform and reduction plans, which in turn forces Ryan into the presidential race—ultimately the Democrats’ worst nightmare. ~Bill Kristol

Yes, I can see them shaking in terror already. Who actually believes this? Are there people in Obama’s camp worrying about having to face a single-issue Congressman identified with a very unpopular budget that includes significant entitlement reform? It’s hard to see why they would. If the “scare tactics” succeed in getting other Republicans to flee from his plan, wouldn’t that be an indication that Ryan shouldn’t run? More to the point, if the “scare tactics” are working, wouldn’t that hint that Ryan’s candidacy is going to be unsuccessful?

In addition to having little credibility on fiscal responsibility thanks to past votes, he spent the better part of the last two years joining with his party leadership in attacking the Democratic health care legislation because it included cuts to Medicare. Technically, Ryan objected to these cuts because they were going to fund the provisions of the new legislation, and Ryan would say that his plan saves Medicare by preventing it from going bankrupt. It is possible that Ryan could persuade voters that these two positions are consistent, and that his previous opposition to Medicare cuts wasn’t simply an attempt to use the same “scare tactics” that he now decries when they are used against his plan. Indeed, the latest refrain from Ryan and his supporters is that opponents of the Ryan plan would prefer for Medicare to go bankrupt, and so even in defending their large cuts to the program they feel compelled to continue presenting themselves as defenders of Medicare.

Peter Suderman commented on the backlash to the Ryan plan earlier this week:

During the ObamaCare debate and the 2010 election, the party’s loudest, most frequent criticism of last year’s health care overhaul was that it cut Medicare. That was an effective message, but also a short-sighted one. Now as Republicans look for ways to reform Medicare on their own, their own words are coming back to haunt them.

As someone who would like to see Medicare overhauled along the lines that Ryan proposes, I can’t say it’s fun to watch. But the GOP—Rep. Ryan and a handful of others excepted—helped ensure that the Democrats’ current Medicare message would be popular and effective. One of the reasons Ryan knew what was coming, it’s safe to say, was that his own party had been there before.

The real trouble for Ryan wasn’t just his party that had been there before, but he personally used this line of attack.

Suppose Ryan heeds all of these absurd demands and joins the race. All of the declared and likely Republican candidates have already endorsed Ryan’s plan or something very much like it. His presence in the race will be redundant and could be harmful to him and his plan. Since everyone in the field already agrees with him, he would not be running to draw attention to entitlement reform and force the other candidates in his direction. At first, his rivals will bury him with praise. Everyone on the stage with him will say, “Chairman Ryan is doing outstanding work in Congress, and that is why he should go back there and continue what he started. When I am President, I look forward to working with Chairman Ryan on these and other important issues.” If Ryan actually wants to try to win the nomination, some of his more conservative rivals will then point out that he voted for all the bailouts and Medicare Part D, which will remind voters that his enthusiasm for fiscal responsibility and Medicare solvency is a fairly new thing. The more compromised “main contenders” that have similar problems in their record will embrace Ryan even more closely, but they will also be able to point to Ryan’s past votes to make their own flaws seem less important.

Unless Ryan scores some improbable victories in the primary process, the perception will be that Ryan took his message to Republican primary voters and it was rejected. That won’t be entirely true, since all of the candidates have more or less aligned themselves with his proposal, but it will be one more thing opponents of Ryan and his plan can throw at him. In the meantime, he will have wasted months on a fruitless presidential bid that could have been spent on legislative work. A Ryan candidacy will likely be about as successful as Fred Thompson’s, but its failure will have some significant consequences for Ryan’s ideas.

It is not unique to their party, but Republicans have a particularly bad habit of wanting to promote their new political talent too quickly. Many of their Senators and governors are barely in office before partisans begin building them up as possible VP or presidential candidates, and usually this means that the partisans want them to jump in as soon as possible before they have done anything. The calls for Ryan to run are an extreme form of this impulse to draft young politicians before they are ready. What is worse is that they are being driven by the delusion that Ryan’s plan is not politically toxic and sheer desperation on account of the perceived weaknesses of the other candidates.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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