In 2011, as the Presidential campaign got under way, Paul Ryan posed for Time, curling barbells during a P90X workout, with his baseball cap turned backward and his ear buds in, ready for some heavy metal. The magazine had considered naming him Person of the Year, for his sudden rise to radical prominence in the House of Representatives. That, in turn, was an outcome of his co-authorship of a brassy book titled “Young Guns,” which attacked government spending, and of his marketing of a manifesto, “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” which promised big reductions in the size of government, along with privatization plans for Medicare and Social Security. (Privatizing Social Security has been dropped from—or, at least, is not mentioned in—recent versions of the Roadmap.)
In a Bravo Channel nation, Ryan’s ascent is explicable. Yet the beefcake-wonk story masks a more consequential one, about his place in a long-running war of ideas within the Republican Party. Ryan opposes any increase in taxation, and he is a social conservative who advocates shrinking the federal government by degrees unprecedented in recent history. Mitt Romney’s decision to anoint Ryan as his running mate and ideas man remains the year’s most revealing political move—a clear signal, amid the campaign noise, of what is at stake in next month’s Presidential vote.
Ryan still favors bold tones. Last Thursday night, toward the end of his debate with Vice-President Joe Biden, he asked, “What kind of country are we going to be?” He seemed to be alluding to his Ayn Rand-like perception that President Obama, far from being the cautious centrist perceived by some frustrated Democrats, is focussed on a “hardcore-left agenda,” and has taken the nation “very far left, very fast,” as he put it in “Young Guns.” Democrats aren’t just spending and regulating too much; they are “turning the Constitution on its head.”
The United States has economic and fiscal problems, but evidence that they result from high taxes is scant. America’s top marginal federal income-tax rate this year—thirty-five per cent—is lower than that of Australia, Japan, Italy, France, Germany, or Great Britain. Nor is the U.S. government disproportionately large. The size of the government as a share of the economy is a quarter less than it is in France, and is well below the European average. America’s debt load is unsustainable, but history, math, and common sense suggest that it cannot be reduced, never mind retired, without some new tax revenue.
Republicans used to take such analysis for granted. Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon maintained high taxes on millionaires, and produced federal-budget surpluses. When Eisenhower left office, in 1961, the top income-tax rate was ninety-one per cent; when Nixon resigned, in 1974, it was seventy per cent. That was just a couple of years after Joe Biden first won election to the Senate, as a twenty-nine-year-old Democratic young gun. His colleagues then included Republicans—Jacob Javits, George Aiken, Robert Stafford, and others—who had helped vote in President Johnson’s Great Society programs. Other Republicans, though, were growing restless about the Party’s acceptance of high tax rates, Social Security, and Medicare. They were trapped in politics of the Democrats’ making, and they wanted out. “Cut revenue, cut taxes, and starve government programs out of existence: That was the new plan,” Biden wrote in his memoir, “Promises to Keep.”
The Republican dissidents of the nineteen-seventies hailed the coming of Ronald Reagan. But although Reagan cut tax rates, he also oversaw a large increase in government spending. Twenty years later, George W. Bush shattered the G.O.P.’s credibility on fiscal matters by cutting taxes, spending nearly a trillion dollars on two wars, and turning the budget surpluses of the late Clinton years into gigantic deficits. After such a performance, it would be logical to expect Republicans to seek a revival of Eisenhower’s tax and budget rectitude. Instead, the Party saw the rise of Tea Party rage—a revival of intra-party revolt, marked by a determination to shrink government in ways that Reagan had not—and, with it, the ascent of Ryan.
Joe Biden, throughout his career, has argued Medicare, Social Security, and taxes with Republicans of every variety. So, during his debate with Ryan, he delivered not just ripostes and talking points but a palpable confidence that the congressman’s proposals are unpopular, extreme, lack critical detail, and constitute an argument by assertion, a kind of young man’s bluff. Biden is a throwback, and at times the President has seemed to find his garrulous improvisation an annoyance. Debating Ryan, however, Biden offered a reminder that politics is a profession, and that a lifelong passion for it need not be ignoble. He dismissed the ninety-page Roadmap in three succinct sentences:
With regard to Social Security, we will not, we will not privatize it. If we had listened to Romney, Governor Romney, and the congressman during the Bush years, imagine where all those seniors would be now if their money had been in the market. Their ideas are old, and their ideas are bad, and they eliminate the guarantee of Medicare.
There was a lot of talk of “math” during the debate, and many billions and trillions passed by. The domestic-policy discussion was premised, essentially, on the idea that Social Security and Medicare will go bankrupt unless drastic measures are taken. In the case of Social Security, that premise is doubtful; slow adjustments to the retirement age, tied to changes in life expectancy, along with modest means-testing and protection for those with lower incomes, could right the program without too much pain. Medicare’s troubles run deeper, because they arise from skyrocketing health-care costs that no one—Republican or Democrat—has figured out how to control systematically. Ryan’s privatization plan, which Romney has mostly embraced, would convert Medicare’s universal benefit into a subsidy for the purchase of private insurance. The plan has won a surprising amount of attention, given that its essential claim to reduce costs is unproved, and that Ryan’s stumping for it has been dishonest—he will not acknowledge that its inflation indexing all but insures a higher cost burden for seniors.
The country’s health-care-cost problem is much bigger than Medicare, in any event. The United States spends more money per capita on health than the other industrialized democracies, and gets worse results. The reasons are well documented: doctors are paid not for how healthy they keep their patients but for how many procedures they order. The system is Balkanized by groups representing the interests of doctors, insurance companies, drug companies, and others.
Ryan’s plan won’t fix this problem. The foundation provided by the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, offers far better prospects for scaling new incentives and lowering costs, and it will extend health insurance and access to doctors to millions of Americans who currently lack coverage. Romney and Ryan, of course, denounce the law as a government takeover and an assault on liberty, even though as governor of Massachusetts Romney pioneered Obamacare’s principles. In another era, Romney would have run on that record. But he is now fighting two campaigns: to defeat Obama and to co-opt his party’s radicals, who are led by his own running mate. He could use a better road map.