The GOP should be nervous

As the House of Representatives circles around Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” this week, I find myself marveling at the confusion over just what is in it. I haven’t read Rep. Ryan’s (R-Wis.) work and, in truth, probably never will. But I have been captivated by the coverage and commentary on his “audacious” long-term spending plan. Some see a blueprint — a basis for further discussion of how we get our nation out of debt. Others see a right-wing attack on the social safety net. Almost no one sees a document that will ever become law.

Such budget resolutions are usually a statement of policy, of principle for one party or the other. Ryan’s plan is certainly that. It is his view of where the nation should go in the future — a vision shared by Tea Party types and the more conservative members of the Republican base. It is, however, very light on specifics.

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Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who is part of the so-called “Gang of Six” struggling to come up with a bipartisan budget plan, calls Ryan “a smart guy” but goes on to point out that he is only focused on non-defense discretionary spending, “which is 12 percent of the budget.” Chambliss makes the point that cutting the entire budget pie in

Ryan’s plan wouldn’t make a dent in America’s $14 trillion debt.

Ryan’s aspirational plan rolls more than 30 years of Republican budget orthodoxy into his supposedly “new” Path to Prosperity. He would cut nearly $6 trillion in federal spending over a decade with old bromides like eliminating waste, fraud and abuse — four words Ronald Reagan turned into one during his presidency and that have been part of virtually every Republican budget speech since. He wants to put a “binding cap on total spending as a percentage of the economy” but does not tell us what he would cap or how he would do it. Block grants — both to states and individuals — seem to play a big role in the Ryan prosperity plan. Block grants are a fond conservative dream.

States, the argument goes, will do a much better job of spending tax dollars than the federal government. Let’s see — that would be states like California and New York and Arizona … the list goes on. Local Tea Party chapters see plenty of waste, fraud and abuse in their state governments yet cherish Ryan’s dream of block-grant efficiency.

There are those who would call that dream something else — a nightmare, perhaps.

Ryan’s plan seems to gain the most traction among those who believe we must cut entitlement spending to balance the budget. “Reform” of Medicaid, Medicare and even — gasp — Social Security has caught the attention of not just the Republican base but more mainstream politicians. Even the president is poised to grasp the “third rail” of American politics in a speech to be delivered after this column is filed but before it appears in print. We shall see if progressive predictions of a violent backlash come true once President Obama has spoken. He will likely make a nuanced argument for “reform” that will appeal to moderate and independent voters yet not drive progressives to search for an alternate candidate to defend liberal values.

All this talk of entitlement reform has Republican House leadership growing gleeful over finally getting the concept on the table. But some members of their caucus are becoming decidedly nervous. Republicans from districts with high numbers of seniors are worried about what the Ryan plan will do to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Even if the real answer is “not much,” there is a widespread perception that the Path to Prosperity runs right through the social safety net. The GOP leadership can only afford to lose 22 Republican votes in the House and still ram through the Ryan plan. They will probably hold those votes, but many are wavering.

Nervous Republican House members are sensing a real problem with voters. No matter that two-thirds of those 2008 Obama voters who switched to the Republicans in 2010 did so because of concerns over government spending. The general idea that our government is spending us deeper into debt is a powerful one. But the specifics of how we dial back that excess is muddled, to say the least. Ryan’s plan appeals to broad concerns over the budget and the economy. The details, however, trouble a lot of voters. “It sounds good” is the message we’re hearing from the real America, “but we’re not sure it is really going to work.”

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com