The Demonization of Paul Ryan

House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan is not deterred by Democratic attempts to portray him as a radical.

President Barack Obama speaks with Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin during a nationally televised bipartisan meeting on health insurance reform at Blair House in Washington DC, February 25, 2010
President Barack Obama speaks with Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin during a nationally televised bipartisan meeting on health insurance reform at Blair House in Washington DC, February 25, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

It is a tested political tactic: label your opponent an “extremist” and no matter what he says, you can afford to ignore him.

That is what some Democrats have been trying to do to House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan.

The introduction to an interview with the Wisconsin congressman in The Wall Street Journal this week sums it up perfectly:

Paul Ryan doesn’t look like the menacing sort. He’s amiable in a familiar Midwestern way, his disposition varies between cheerfully earnest and wry, and he uses words like “gosh.” Yet to hear Democrats tell it, the 41-year-old Republican congressman is the evil genius, the cruel and mad budget cutter who threatens grandma’s health care, grandad’s retirement, and the entitlement state as we know it.

Senate Democrats like Chuck Schumer issue almost daily press releases attacking Mr Ryan, Paul Krugman is obsessed and demeaning, and even President Obama can’t stop mentioning him. Only this week, the president justified his own failure to tackle entitlements in his dud of a 2012 budget by saying that “the chairman of the House Republican budgeteers didn’t sign on” to the final report of Mr Obama’s deficit commission

The attempt to brand Ryan as a radical has been going on for more than a year but recently picked up steam as he spearheaded the Republican effort to cut several tens of billions in domestic spending from this year’s budget. (Spending cuts which the majority in the Senate is refusing to enact.)

While Democrats were lambasting their opposite numbers in Congress for obstructing their agenda last year, President Barack Obama recognized Ryan as a “serious” thinker and put him on his deficit reduction committee.

Ryan didn’t endorse the proposals of its chairmen because they refused to address rising health-care costs. The administration hasn’t even adopted their more common sense solutions, like cutting farm subsidies and raising the retirement age, at a time of unprecedented fiscal crisis.

The White House never called to ask Ryan’s advice despite repeated promises from the president to have “aggressive” conservations with the Republican fiscal hawk. “He keeps saying that,” Ryan told The Wall Street Journal but “they don’t talk to us. It just doesn’t really happen.”

The president meanwhile has proposed a five year freeze in domestic discretionary spending. Excluding entitlements and defense, that accounts for about 12 percent of the budget. But it is a portion of federal spending that has expanded hugely in recent years. Maintaining those spending levels is unacceptable, says Ryan.

The fiscal strategy is to hang on to all the government we’ve grown, and hopefully rhetoric will get us through the moment. It strikes me as a posture or position to keep the gains of the last two years in place — the bump up in discretionary spending, the creation of these new entitlements — to lock in their gains, bank their wins, and then hang on through the rest of this year.

Since the administration won’t introduce plans to reform entitlements, it is up to Republicans like Ryan to start the debate. “We have a fiscal reality that is obvious and we have a president who is failing to lead. We feel duty bound to lead ourselves.”

When Republicans last tried to tackle entitlements, in the 1990s, Democrats used their rhetoric and their attacks to portray them as radicals and turn public opinion against reform. Some conservatives are afraid that the president is preparing to repeat the tactic but Ryan doesn’t seem to care.

A lot of the congressional freshmen, many of whom were endorsed by Tea Party activists this fall, are willing to cut and cut deep. “Politically, I also believe it’s going to be the right thing to do,” said Ryan. “People want the problem solved. People turn on their TV, they see the European debt crisis. They see California, New York, Illinois. They understand there is a sovereign debt crisis popping all over the place.”

Ryan promotes limited government and private entrepreneurship instead of increased public spending. He would privatize Social Security for future retirees and largely dismantle the existing health support programs. “Rather than depending on government for your retirement and health security, I propose to empower people to become much more self dependent for such things in life,” he explained in a speech to the Hudson Institute in 2009.

During the debate over health-care reform last year, Ryan worried that the Democrats’ plans would leave even “more Americans [dependent] on the federal government than on themselves for their livelihoods.”

Should we now subscribe to an ideology where government creates rights, is solely responsible for delivering these artificial rights, and then systematically rations these rights?

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that is what government does. He complained earlier this month that Republicans would “take away rights patients already have — rights that are saving lives, saving money and saving Medicare. What Republicans refuse to understand,” said Reid, “is that in America, we give our citizens rights.”

Not according to Paul Ryan who believes that man’s rights are derived, not from the state, but from nature and nature’s God. “Do we believe that the goal of government is to promote equal opportunity for all Americans to make the most of their lives,” he wondered last year, “or do we now believe that government’s role is to equalize the results of peoples’ lives?”

The latter — “paternalistic” and “condescending” — view is one Democrats adhere to and it “tramples upon the principles that have made America so exceptional,” according to Ryan.