Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2014

Currently: 76° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

OTHER VOICES:

Ryan’s biggest mistake

Another view?

View more of the Las Vegas Sun's opinion section:

Editorials - the Sun's viewpoint.

Columnists - local and syndicated writers.

Letters to the editor - readers' views.

Have your own opinion? Write a a letter to the editor.

A few years ago, President Barack Obama established a debt commission that was led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and had a group of eminences, including Rep. Paul Ryan.

When that commission came up with its proposal, some conservative Republicans, like Tom Coburn and Judd Gregg, voted yes, but Ryan voted no. This was a devastating blow. If Ryan and the other House Republicans had voted for the Simpson-Bowles proposal, it would have gone to Congress for up-or-down votes, regardless of how Obama reacted. We would have had national action on debt reduction.

The Simpson-Bowles plan would have simplified the tax code and lowered rates. It would have capped the size of government. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, it would have brought the federal debt down from 73 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product today, to 67 percent of GDP in 2022.

Ryan voted no for intellectually coherent reasons. He argued that the single biggest contributing factor to public debt is the unsustainable growth of Medicare. Yet the Simpson-Bowles plan did nothing to restructure Medicare, and it sidestepped health care issues generally. Ryan said that it was silly to come up with a debt-reduction proposal that didn’t fix the single biggest driver of the nation’s debt.

This is the sort of argument that makes a lot of sense in a think-tank auditorium. The problem was there were almost no Democrats who endorsed Ryan’s Medicare reform ideas. If Ryan was going to pinion debt reduction to Medicare reform, that meant there would be no debt reduction.

But Ryan had another way forward, noting: We’re going to have an election in 2012; the country will choose between two different visions; if we Republicans win, we’ll be able to reform Medicare our way and reduce the debt our way.

In other words, Ryan was willing to sacrifice the good for the sake of the ultimate.

In order to get this ultimate solution, though, Ryan was betting that three things would happen. First, he was betting that Republicans would beat Obama. Second, he was betting that Republicans would win such overwhelming congressional majorities that they would be able to push through measures Democrats hate. Third, he was betting that a group of Republican politicians would unilaterally slash one of the country’s most popular programs and that they would be able to sustain these cuts through the ensuing elections, in the face of ferocious and highly popular Democratic opposition.

To put it another way, Ryan was giving up significant debt progress for a political fantasy.

Ryan’s fantasy happens to be the No. 1 political fantasy in America today, which has inebriated both parties. It is the fantasy that the other party will not exist. It is the fantasy that you are about to win a 1932-style victory that will render your opponents powerless.

Every single speech in this election campaign is based on this fantasy. There hasn’t been a speech this year that grapples with the real world — that we live in a highly polarized, evenly divided nation and the next president is going to have to try to pass laws in that context.

It’s obvious why candidates talk about the glorious programs they’ll create if elected. It fires up crowds and defines values. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s almost entirely make-believe.

In the real world, there are almost never ultimate victories, and it is almost never the case (even if you control the White House and Congress) that you get to do what you want.

The real world looks a lot like the Simpson-Bowles commission, where you get a diverse group of people who try to make progress in the areas where that is possible and try to sidestep the areas where it is not.

The real world looks like the budget talks between Obama and John Boehner last summer, in which two party leaders get together and work out a budget deal between themselves (which is easy) and also try to write a deal they can sell to their party bases (which is hard).

In the real world, leaders have a dual consciousness. They have a campaign consciousness in which they argue for the policies they think are best for the country. But then they have a governing consciousness, a mindset they put on between elections. It says: OK, this is the team the voters have sent to Washington. How can we navigate our divides to come up with something suboptimal but productive?

Paul Ryan has a great campaign consciousness, and, when it comes to things like Medicare reform, I agree with him. But when he voted no on the Simpson-Bowles plan he missed the chance to show that he also has a governing consciousness. He missed the chance to do something good for the country, even if it wasn’t the best he or I would wish for.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 1 comment so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. Paul RyAYN could not support Simpson/Bowles for one simple reason: He was, AND IS, a signatory to Norquist's anti tax pledge. Nobody seems to realize that he REMAINS a signatory to the Norquist pledge. 14 years in Congress, and this A**hat has NEVER HAD A BILL HE WROTE passed. He loves his salary, and his perks, and INTELLIGENT VOTERS should be able to see through his total lack of conscience and his total lack of principles. He is running on Mitten's platform, which is the total decimation of the middle class. Hillbilly hand fishing for catfish does not make him a man of the people. It makes him a yokel and a fool who has no business being a heartbeat from the presidency. Take away his pension and his medical benefits, and see where he would stand on policy that Romney stands for. The GOP makes me sick. The rich rule, and the rest can flip sand.