A Time For Choosing Not To Choose
As for Paul Ryan’s speech, Scott Galupo’s piece covers it well. I thought the speech was very effective on its own terms – well organized, well delivered, forceful and clear. It presented a case against the Obama record that is difficult to rebut – not because there are no persuasive rebuttals (the S&P downgrade caused by the GOP’s debt ceiling shenanigans is somehow Obama’s fault?) but because the speech had built into it the inevitable comeback (there you go, refusing to take responsibility – where does that proverbial buck stop again?). On the strength of this speech, Ryan is not going away any time soon, whatever happens in November.
And in terms of the fundamental notes it hit, the speech was reminiscent of another up-and-comer, Reagan’s famous “Time for Choosing” speech from 1964, though Reagan’s speech was much wonkier (how times have changed!). But this was a “time for choosing” speech without any actual choices. Because, in terms of positive action to address what Ryan correctly identifies as the core issue in the election – the lingering economic crisis – here’s all the speech has to say.
We have a plan for a stronger middle class, with the goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years.
In a clean break from the Obama years, and frankly from the years before this president, we will keep federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, or less. That is enough. The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.
That’s it. That’s the entire policy section – everything else in the speech is either boilerplate or refers to reversing what Obama has done, putting us back where we were in January, 2009.
Assuming the second paragraph is an explanation of the first, then the plan for achieving rapid recovery is a Federal spending cap. Now, under Romney’s proposed budget, defense spending is supposed to increase and Medicare cuts are supposed to be restored. You can’t cut interest payments, and Ryan and Romney have been busily demagoguing against any cuts in current retiree benefits, which rules out near-term cuts in Social Security. All of the foregoing put together amount to about 2/3 of the Federal budget, or 16% of GDP. To get under the 20% cap, you’d have to cut 50% of everything else, from Medicaid to highways to veterans’ benefits to the F.B.I. Which, of course, is never going to happen. Which is probably a good thing, because it would be devastating to the economy. So what’s the secret recovery plan? Why are we supposed to vote for this ticket?
The largest expansion of entitlements in our time, Medicare Part D, took place in the Bush years, and Paul Ryan voted for it. The most serious effort to restrain Federal spending in our time, the Simpson-Bowles commission, took place in the Obama years, and Paul Ryan voted against it. I’m sure, in his heart, Ryan opposed Medicare Part D, and voted for it to “preserve his viability within the system,” as it were. I’m sure, in his heart, Ryan opposes his own ticket’s rhetoric on Medicare – heck, his own budget retained Obama’s Medicare cuts, and he claims that he opposed Simpson-Bowles precisely because it didn’t tackle the growth of spending in Medicare.
I also suspect that, in his heart, Paul Ryan is amenable to the kind of bi-partisan compromise that could make a real difference in changing our fiscal situation. He’s worked in the past with Democrats like former OMB chair Alice Rivlin and Senator Ron Wyden on his proposals for Medicare reform, and has amended those proposals repeatedly in an effort to respond to Democratic objections.
But his heart doesn’t matter. Political reality does. The political reality of our time is that there is no majority constituency for radically reducing the scope of the welfare state. There was no such majority in 1964 either – which is why the Goldwater ticket went down in flames. There was no such majority in 1980 either – which is why every major part of the Great Society that Reagan opposed in 1964 was retained by his administration. Today, I don’t even think there’s a majority constituency of Republicans. But the Republican Party as currently constituted cannot accept that fact – indeed, is founded on denying it. Which is why Romney and Ryan are running on the rhetoric of reducing it, but not the reality.
This is, indeed, a time for choosing. We don’t have infinite financial resources, and the priority now should be to use them more effectively, because if we don’t we’ll have to shoulder progressively rising interest payments on the back of an economy that hasn’t grown to match. Choosing, though, means deciding what is important than what. To my mind, that means choosing to reduce the burden of American military spending (currently 20% of the budget), choosing to wring inefficient spending more effectively out of our healthcare system, choosing to reduce the generosity of the Federal government toward the least-deserving beneficiaries (wealthy retirees, jumbo mortgage borrowers, large agribusinesses, etc.) – and choosing to spend more in areas that have a better chance of improving the performance of our economy over time.
Those are real choices, choices that would be hard to push through our political system. They are small-scale choices compared with the choice of radically downsizing most of the Federal Government’s actual activities, which Romney and Ryan claim to be running on. But they are huge choices compared with any specific spending changes that Romney or Ryan have proposed.