If you boiled down the media’s reaction to Paul Ryan’s budget to a three-letter phrase, it would be: WTF? Most commentators and reporters are flummoxed that the new budget, released this morning, makes no concession to the fact that Republicans just ran a presidential campaign on these very ideas and were soundly defeated. Dig the incredulity in the lead to this New York Times report:
“Four months after Republicans suffered a convincing defeat in the presidential election, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee, unveiled a spending-and-tax plan on Tuesday that relies on the same lightning rod proposals of his 2012 campaign to balance the federal budget in 10 years.”
You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, but some conservatives don’t agree that Ryan’s budget is a shockingly right-wing “lightning rod” proposal—they think it’s too liberal. And they’re deeply disillusioned by what they view as Ryan’s breaking faith with the conservative movement.
I just got off the phone with a leader of this movement, who didn’t want to be named—his group is still deciding whether to publicly challenge Ryan—but was happy to share the right-wing case against his budget.
Here it is in a nutshell: These conservatives believe that most Republican elected officials today lack the gumption and courage to make the cuts, especially to entitlement programs, that they believe are necessary. But they feel they’ve been making progress—their big victory this year was getting Republican leaders to commit to offering a budget that balances within 10 years, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. (Recall that Ryan’s last budget didn’t balance until 2038.) They had great hopes for Ryan’s new budget, hopes that were dashed when it turned out he planned to keep the $624 billion in tax increases from the fiscal cliff deal.
Basically, they see this as a breach of faith. The point of balancing the budget in 10 years, in their view, is to force Republicans to vote for entitlement cuts—and then, they hope, to see those same Republicans get reelected. This would demonstrate that voting for deep entitlement cuts would not be the automatic death sentence that many Republicans presume and, in time, would condition Republicans to think differently, and much more ambitiously, about what they could achieve. Today, my source told me, Republicans would shy from such cuts, even if they controlled all of Congress and the White House. It’s important to begin laying the groundwork now, so that future Republicans will be willing to go much further.
Ryan’s budget was supposed to be a key component of this plan, a great leap forward. But rather than balancing “the hard way”—by cutting entitlements—it balances “the easy way,” by meekly accepting the Obama tax increase. In doing so, it disappoints conservatives who thought the 10-year window was going to be a game-changer. Ryan’s new budget follows the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. Ironically, these conservatives are upset for much the same reason as liberals are: Ryan’s new budget isn’t much different than his old one.