Why are Ryan’s proposals so (politically) self-immolating?

Paul Ryan’s proposals seem politically self-immolating. I’m not complaining. I’m just puzzled.

(This is cross-posted at The Century Foundation’s Taking Note)

This is a real question, not a rhetorical one.

I spent some time yesterday, before the Ryan proposals’ details were fully known, writing something to slam the notion of converting Medicare into a defined contribution voucher program. I spent some time slamming the notion of block-granting Medicaid, too. As I was writing, I assumed that Ryan’s proposals were actually more reasonable than they turned out to be. I figured that the unspecified details of Ryan’s current plans would resemble the previous Ryan-Rivlin plan, in which the Medicare vouchers rising every year by the rate of GDP growth plus one percent, adjusted for population growth. I asked around. Most experts were assuming the same things, too. Then, last night, some colleagues and I were reading through the Congressional Budget Office’s preliminary analysis….

To our surprise, we saw that Ryan wants these vouchers to rise at a much slower rate. Adjusting for the consumer price index and for population growth, the real annual rate of increase would be …zero. Because medical expenditures are rising much faster than inflation, Ryan’s plan would produce striking cuts in Medicare benefits by 2022, cutting the predicted benefits by more than half by 2030.

This is crazy. I don’t mean “crazy” in the sense that it is bad policy, or policy I didn’t like. I mean crazy in the sense that Ryan’s proposals would self-immolate if anyone actually implemented them.

These proposals have already politically self-immolated, with self-avowed fiscal hawks and moderates abandoning them as soon as they understood what Ryan was proposing. Mark notes Isabel Sawhill’s scathing comments about it. Alice Rivlin—who was providing Ryan’s ideological cover in this venture–jumped ship, too. The fact that Ryan threw a whopping regressive tax cut in there didn’t help, either, and exposed him to a rather nasty filleting at the hands of Jonathan Chait. I’m not even mentioning the strange assumptions and messed-up Heritage Foundation economic forecasts.

In short, this seems politically incompetent.

If I were President Obama, I would put on my reading glasses, go on TV with some seriously boring Perot-vian powerpoints, and read aloud the juicy portions of the CBO report. Once voters understand what Ryan and his Republicans colleagues want to do, they won’t like what they will see.

I’m puzzled by Ryan’s approach here. If one is exploiting public fears about entitlements and the deficit to attack pillars of American government, wouldn’t it have been smarter to be more seductive, to present something that ends traditional Medicare without an obvious and huge benefit cut? That’s certainly what the liberal conspiracy would have done.

Ryan’s proposals were never going to be implemented, anytime soon, anyway. They were put out there to frame political debate, to force Democrats to move right in response to Ryan’s supposedly serious, adult conversation about the deficit. Instead Ryan gave the Democrats a huge opening to explain their side of the story, as Republicans get ready to shut down the government.

I’m really complaining. I’m just puzzled.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

20 thoughts on “Why are Ryan’s proposals so (politically) self-immolating?”

  1. Maybe…mayyyyyybeeeee….they are trying to implement Simpson-Bowles and this is the crazy garage-sale negotiation strategy that gets you to the price you want to get?!?!??!?!?!??!?!??!?!?!??!?!??!??!?!?!??!?!?!??!?!??!??!?!?!??!?!?!??

  2. One principal of the GOP is to be evil, by cutting cheap but useful science research, evironmental regs, etc.

    Another is to enrich the wealth and immiserate the poor.

    They are going to look evil anyway, why settle for half a loaf?

  3. Maybe the proposal was serious? Maybe he actually thinks something like this is needed, and figures, “If I get shot down, at least when the country goes down the tubes I’ll know I tried.”?

    For many people, losing is the the worst imaginable thing. Never having tried is.

  4. Harold, there are two obvious reasons. First, the GOP has had tremendous success as simply being evil. Funnel money to the rich, and f*ck everybody else. There was a saying that half of Americans would be happy living under a bridge, cooking a rat on a stick over a trashcan fire, so long as their neighbor didn’t have a rat to eat. That’s pretty close to being true. Notice that the reaction of the right’s base to being squeezed themselves is to jealously look upon everybody else’s prosperity (unless they’re rich) and to demand that everybody else be squeezed, as well. The only backlash came when certain core principles (such as police/firefighter unions) were actually being put to death – not threatened, but actual laws being passed.

    Second, Overton Window. They keep proposing insane right-wing sh*t, and the definition of ‘insane’ changes. Of course, it helps when the propaganda organs (the MSM, the economics professoriate, intellectual brothels such as Heritage, CATO, etc.) are pushing very hard, and have no hesiation in uttering clear lies.

  5. Oh – an article from Esquire (http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/paul-ryan-budget-plan-5519000) linked from Balloon Juice, titled ‘Paul Ryan and the New Politics of Sadism’ (I have yet to read).

    The excerpt from Balloon Juice:
    “Ryan has come to the unremarkable intellectual conclusion that more people would rather inflict pain — even vicariously, even through his greasy sadist’s smile — than receive it. ”

    “and “austerity” is fairly defined in this context as making other people hurt so you’ll feel better about yourself. Unemployed workers, whose pensions were looted by Wall Street sharpers, rage against the pensions of public workers, not because those pensions are so gloriously lavish, but because they exist at all. Somebody has something you don’t and they must pay for that.”

  6. Barry, and even Brett, understand what’s going on here. Guys like Harold are in what I call the reality-based community – that is people who believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.

    That’s not the way the world really works anymore. When Republicans act, they create their own reality. And while Harold is studying that reality — judiciously, as he will — Republicans will act again, creating other new realities, which he can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. Republicans are history’s actors…and Harold and others in the reality-based community are left to just study what they do.

  7. Harold, David Frum has an interesting take (www.frumforum.com) on this. Frum argues it’s not a real budget proposal—because it has no chance of being passed by the Senate or signed by the President. It’s not an electioneering document—because that will be written by the party’s presidential nominee next year. And it’s not a negotiating ploy—because Democrats are likely to view it as blatantly hostile to their interests and constituencies, as well as being massively unpopular with the general public.

    Frum argues that Ryan’s proposal is a “memo to me”—a document addressed to the Republican Party to demonstrate that it’s not the party of Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind and the Bush expansion of government; it’s the party of small government and here’s the proof.

    It makes as much sense as any other opinion I’ve seen.

  8. Maybe it’s just a blunder. Ryan has been given considerable power by the GOP House caucus. He may have simply overreached.

    He’s an idologue, remember, and one who’s been given utterly unjustified praise by the media for seriousness, boldness, and so on. So it went to his head and he thought he could get away with this.

  9. “Reality based community”; After spending something over a year perusing this website, I’ve concluded this is a phrase similar to “Democratic People’s Republic”; You only use it to describe yourself if you aren’t one.

    Here’s a clue: If you’re convinced that your opposion, which roughly matches you in political force, is starkly evil on a cosmological scale, and people aren’t being marched into gas chambers, you’re probably not all that based on reality.

  10. I think that the answer to this question depends a lot on whether Ryan is actually smart and reflective enough to know that his plan is full of sh*t. It also depends on how good his take on the cravenness of democratic leaders is. If he’s wrong (and it appears for the moment he may be) the democrats rise up in outrage and spend the next 18 months pummeling Ryan and his associates into scorned oblivion. If he’s right, a bunch of centrists desperate to maintain comity and reopen the government agree to compromise and only abolish medicare in 20 years instead of 10. Then the GOP sweeps the 2012 elections with another set of ads about democrats cutting medicare.

  11. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Here’s a clue: If you’re convinced that your opposion, which roughly matches you in political force, is starkly evil on a cosmological scale, and people aren’t being marched into gas chambers, you’re probably not all that based on reality.”

    Stop lying; nobody has made such a claim.

  12. Maybe he actually thinks something like this is needed,

    Yes, we need to transfer more wealth upward and lower our population. And it should be done quickly, not gradually. Yes, that is exactly what we need. Surely.

    Although I’m intrigued by the mindset and cognitive function inherent in Bernard’s possibility of it being a simple blunder. I don’t want someone like that making policy. Very simple.

  13. @barry–brett is much easier to understand if you think of him as a political stand-up comic of the deadpan variety. once you make the cognitive shift the hilarity is neverending.

  14. I think Frum’s take is more or less correct – this is mainly inter-party signalng, with a touch of Overton’s Window gaming.

    That a supine press is willing to orgasm on demand at the supposed ‘seriousness’ (when did that become a synonym for ‘incompetent sadism’?) is just a bonus. Related: Sully’s economic illiteracy is teaming up with his Thatcher worship on his one, and it is actually amusing to watch.

  15. If I were President Obama, I would put on my reading glasses, go on TV with some powerpoints…

    You mean a chart showing the tax rate on the rich during Ike’s and Nixon’s and Ronnie’s terms?
    You mean taking the time to educate Joe Sixpack and Tattoo Jane on Ryan’s tax cuts for billionaires and medicare cuts for elderly?
    You mean like standing up at the front and acting like a leader of the nation and democratic party principles?

    Our dog don’t hunt to the left Harold.
    Never has. Never will. Krugman got this right. Well before I did…

    Matching up Simson with Bowles was a tell…
    And there has been lots more.
    Face it up: We are stuck with this limp turd for 5 more years.
    And it could be worse. Could be stuck with him for only 1 more year…

  16. Have you considered the possibility that Ryan is a Democratic mole ?

    Here is a topos. Assume you want to destroy the Republican party (a safe assumption if you are here — yes we need two major parties but they can at least have the same facts). Assume they go nuts and ask you to write their budget. What would you include which Ryan neglected ? It is a challenge. I think a bank bailout fund would make the plan even more politically poisonous. Aside from that I can’t think of anything short of “A Modest Proposal …”.

  17. I think Dan is on to something in his earlier post. The Ryan proposal has the effect of shifting the terms of our debate over deficit reduction to the right. Bowles-Simpson — or whatever bipartisan plan the senate might cooks up — will now be considered the “liberal” alternative.

  18. What does Ryan himself say it is, a “call to arms” or something like that? Budgets are first and foremost political documents, as they always say in parliamentary systems, and he’s certainly making it that. He’s also supposed to be a dedicated Randian and bff of the WI governor. So it’s entirely possible he really believes this is what the US should look like. It’s also possible he thinks this is what the republican party should stand behind. He doesn’t disguise it because he lacks the Straussian dissembling veneer of people like Gingrich. Or because he’s a real true believer. Or because he thinks money is securely enough in charge at this point that he doesn’t have to disguise it anymore.

    One thing we should never forget about these Idi Amin disciples like Walker, Kasich, and the guys in Maine and Pennsylvania, and about Ryan too. They’re not politicians in the usual sense, ie they don’t need to care about getting re-elected. Oh, surely they’d like to, but their futures don’t depend on it. It isn’t that they’re independently wealthy. It’s that no matter what happens to them, from here on they’re riding a gravy train that’s pulled by people with more money than God.

    Here’s their collective future: When they leave office they’ll “write” autobiographies on million-dollar pre-publication contracts with Macmillan (or whichever it is that Murdoch owns) and the books will be gamed onto best-seller lists for months. They’ll get gigs on Fox. They’ll be $300,000-a-year “fellows” at phony think tanks. They’ll give motivational speeches at 50 to 150,000 a pop. They’ll be on a dozen corporate boards at $125,000 each. They’ll consult for various enterprises for more hundreds of thousands.

    This is easy. Who needs to care about popularity? The kind of people involved here can easily afford to set up a few minions like Walker and his ilk; they’ll never miss the money. They could set up a thousand guys like that a year and never miss it.

    That’s what I think is going on. Money seized its chance this year and created a whole brigade of Idi Amins all over the United States. Doesn’t matter whether they’re true believers or cynics, wily as raccoons or dumb as doornails. They’ll be well-rewarded whatever happens on the ground.

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