by Chris Bodenner
A reader uses the Ryan pick to evaluate the big picture:
The foundation of a masterful Obama long game to address the budget conflict has probably been laid over the past several months. It would be the resolution to the conflict that was fought to a stalemate in 2010/11 between the White House and congressional Republicans, but it really has roots going back 30 years.
In broad strokes, the issue is that Americans want more government than they are willing to pay for, but they have been shielded from this truth over the years for the sake of political expediency. A well-maintained playing field with equitable rules that offers the promise of success for those who can achieve it and the reassurance that those that stumble won't be left to die in the street. Our basic, tacit, social contract. Even at our current heights of anti-government furor, calls to cut these government functions – which account for the overwhelming majority of the federal budget – are deeply unpopular.
The only thing as unpopular as reducing those benefits is paying taxes to fund them. So over the past several decades the Republicans have skillfully played this dynamic to their favor with a simple formula: Advocate tax cuts at all times, make noise about wasteful spending and cut small items with limited appeal (or appeal only to the unpowerful), and never touch (and in fact add to) spending on popular big-ticket items like defense and entitlements. Oh and, of course, obscure all this with constant, distracting, engagement in the culture wars. The fruits of this strategy, unsurprisingly, are record low taxes, increasing spending, and exploding debt.
The solution is as simple as it is unpopular: raise more tax revenue and reduce spending. That is what Simpson-Bowles propose, that is what the Obama-Boehner "Grand Bargain" would have done, and remarkably it is what the public at large prefers when directly polled – a "balanced" solution.
Simpson-Bowles is reverently regarded by high-information voters as a serious piece of work and it surely is, but denouncing Obama for not embracing it willfully ignores the political realities of the time. It was not approved by its own committee because of liberal squeamishness about entitlement reform and en bloc opposition by Ryan and Republicans to one cent in increased revenue. On the floor of the House it mustered 38 votes. What about our experiences in Congress since 2010 suggest that President Obama embracing this plan would encourage Republicans to do the same?
The GOP establishment is, for the most part, still trying to play from its standard playbook which is to sell tax cuts, keep talk of spending cuts vague, and count on voters to assume none of the cuts would really affect them, just the "undeserving." Even when confronted with specific GOP policy proposals many voters simply dismiss out of hand that a politician would actually do any of that.
That's the formula Romney has used to this point and compared to the specific, painful, realities of a Simpson-Bowles style plan it would win hands-down. You rail on taxes and regulations and demagogue the benefit cuts in your opponent's plan. Then you keep the tax cuts, soft pedal the spending reductions, throw the difference on the deficit, and start picking drapes for the Lincoln bedroom. In fact, the only way you win running on increasing taxes and reforming entitlements is to run it head to head as a choice between your plan and a much more noxious option.
Enter Paul Ryan.
I don't think Chicago ever thought they would be so lucky as to run against the man himself, but they've been trying to hang his toxic budget around the GOP nominee's neck all cycle. That's because Ryan and his acolytes are true believers of a radical small government philosophy. While the GOP establishment knows that tax cuts and deficit spending are what win elections, Ryan thinks he can sell people on huge reductions in services in exchange for tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy. The polling suggests he is very wrong.
The Obama campaign's principle strategy to this point has been to prevent a referendum election on the state of the economy and turn it into a choice between a balanced, conservative, approach that maintains the basic structure of federal spending and a more radical GOP plan to restructure our social contract to accommodate their tax preferences.
Rather than try to avoid or obfuscate this choice, Romney chose to turn into the fire. It is a gutsy call that deserves respect in the nanosecond before he categorically denies neither he nor Paul meant or even said any of the things they have ever said.
But now is the time for Obama to show courage as well. He has avoided the referendum election, he has made it a choice election, and it's a debate over starkly different policies that polling suggests he could win handily. If he is the President so many of us believe we elected, now is the time he proves it by laying out a competing vision – dare I dream of short-term stimulus, rehiring state workers, and recovery followed by long-term deficit reduction in the mold of Simpson-Bowles? He then heads into his second term with a clear electoral mandate to break our current stalemate and cement his first term achievements before they are smothered in the crib.
Now that would be worthy of a meep meep, no?