We’ve been reporting and writing a lot about Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) “shadow budget” over the last week. And I wanted to take a moment to explain some of the reasons why.
As I’ve noted before, Ryan is the Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee. So he’s the House Republicans’ chief budget writer. Later in the Spring, the Republicans will come up with their official alternative budget. And it will be written, like this one, by Ryan, in consultation with the other Republican members of the Committee. In other words, it’s sort of a ‘shadow budget’ or first draft of the Republican budget. And among a lot of other things it calls for deep cuts in Social Security benefits, partial privatization of Social Security and big shift of taxes to the middle class and abolition of Medicare in favor of vouchers which seniors will use to purchase private health insurance.
Minority Leader Boehner and the rest of the House leadership are working to have it both ways — on the one hand saying that Ryan’s budget is full of great GOP ideas and ways the GOP would kick butt on the deficit (which is a play to the base and pundits who haven’t read it) but also insisting it’s not the official GOP budget so he and his caucus aren’t on the spot to justify what it contains. In other words, the question is whether the entire 2010 congressional mid-term is going to be fought out as a colossal bait and switch gambit.
So why is it so important?
For two basic reasons.
First, all evidence suggests that the Ryan budget is in fact what the great majority of the House Republican caucus believes and supports. It was the plan in 1994. It surfaced again with overwhelming support in 2005 and repeatedly, though with less fanfare, since then. And they have a very decent chance of becoming the majority party in the House next year. Second, and even more important, the Republicans have been running all year as the party to dramatically cut deficit spending. And the simple truth is that if you want to significantly move the needle on deficits and you rule out tax increases, you simply have no choice but to embrace a Ryan-like budget. There’s no other way to get the kind of money they claim they’re going to trim. No way.
And here’s where you get to the essential political question and the issue that is likely to define 2010. In the second half of 2009, Republicans went very quickly — perhaps a tad too quickly for their own good — from a party seen as hopelessly in the wilderness to one with a very reasonable shot at becoming the governing party. And that’s taken the rhetoric that was being thrown around easily and made it extremely relevant to find out whether they were serious about any of that rhetoric. Because again, it all comes down to this budget.
The political press seldom has much appetite for digging beneath the toplines or any of the policy specifics. But for the reasons, I stated above it’s critical to know where Congressional Republicans stand on the Ryan Budget. It’s just not enough to say they’re not sure. The stakes are too critical.
In terms of the politics of 2010, the White House’s main strategic aim is to change the political landscape from a referendum on Obama and the Democrats into a choice between Democratic and Republican agendas. To the extent that the issue stays Obama/Dems, Yes or No, in such a severe recession, that’s catastrophic for the Democrats. A choice election is a very different thing.
So a key question for 2010 is going to be how effectively the White House is going to be able to do that and how effectively the Republicans will be able to keep their actual policy positions off the table — which they’re now desperately trying to do.
And on top of that, there’s one more wrinkle. How much room does the White House have to frame the election around opposition to tampering with Social Security and Medicare? Possibly not quite so much as some assume. Contrary to what some people think, the move toward fiscal retrenchment didn’t start with Scott Brown’s victory or the president’s sagging poll numbers at the end of the year. The White House was signaling much, much earlier that 2010 would be the year of fiscal retrenchment. And to that end the White House has strongly supported the fiscal/deficit commission supported by Sens. Conrad and Gregg. And the folks from that crowd are very big on major ‘reforms’ of entitlements. President Obama hasn’t gone there directly. But he’s cozied up pretty close. So another question to follow is just what policy and political decision the White House makes. Do they maintain the ambiguity in their own position on ‘entitlements’ or clarify that and draw a red line between where they are and where the Republicans stand?
On all these points, press failure to report the policies the Republicans are actually running on can pretty much be assumed. It’s happening now. And House Republicans are already up in arms that they’re being pressed on their support for privatizing Social Security and abolishing Medicare.
Voters need and deserve to know where each side stands on these issues. Because it’s what is on the table in the 2010 election.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.