Forget about death and taxes.
If you are looking for certainties in American politics, count on this one: If a crisis of governing develops, the advocates for cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will arrive with a plan to resolve the standoff by balancing budgets on the backs of America’s most vulnerable citizens.
Cue Paul Ryan.
The House Budget Committee chairman, a Republican from Janesville, has for the better part of a decade been the most determined advocate on Capitol Hill for the Wall Street agenda that says earned-benefit programs should be reshaped as investment vehicles and voucher schemes that will benefit brokers and the health insurance industry.
Unfortunately for Ryan, his proposals have proven to be supremely unpopular — so much so that when he was nominated in 2012 as the Republican vice presidential candidate, he became a burden on the ticket. His performance in the single vice presidential debate proved to be a comic exercise in the avoidance of his own past positions. And as Election Day approached, Ryan was bundled off to safety in Republican states in the South, where his appearances would do no harm. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” parodied the Wisconsin congressman’s inability to deliver his home state for the Romney/Ryan ticket. And he actually lost his own precinct, city and county in the industrial city of Janesville, where voters began to realize that their representative was more interested in delivering for the financial services industry interests that fill his campaign coffers than for Americans who rely on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Ryan’s kept reasonably quiet after the election that saw him run worse than the vast majority of his House GOP colleagues — winning re-election with the lowest margin of his long political career, despite the fact that his 1st District in southeastern Wisconsin had been gerrymandered to favor the incumbent.
Now, however, Ryan is back, positioning himself as the Republican who can heal the great divide in Washington. In a much-discussed Wall Street Journal column of last week — published at a critical juncture between the beginning of the government shutdown that was engineered by his caucus and the beginning of what could be a debt ceiling standoff — the Budget Committee chairman scoped out what was supposedly a middle ground where Democrats and Republicans might get together and “actually agree on some things.”
Ryan’s initiative came at a point when the Obama White House and congressional Republicans were finally beginning to talk about how to resolve their differences. And he wanted to make sure that the resolution would embrace his priorities: “Reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code.”
If that sounds like the austerity agenda that Ryan has been proposing for years, well, yes, it is.
Ryan is not a foolish man. He knows his ideas are unpopular.
And he knows he can only hope to have them implemented if he can foster the fantasy that they offer a way out of an otherwise irresolvable “standoff.” This is a political variation on the “shock doctrine,” as scoped out by Naomi Klein in her book of the same name: A politician waits for a crisis to pitch an otherwise unacceptable “fix.” Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher employed this approach with her “TINA” — “there is no alternative” — pronouncements about so-called “reforms” of popular programs.
The key is to make radical changes appear to be unavoidable.
Ryan recognizes this.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, he buffed the rough edges that got him in trouble in the past. There was no talk of individual accounts and vouchers.
But the program remained the same.
“Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started,” Ryan announced. “We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and cut costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.”
- Means testing of Medicare.
- Make it easier for the private companies that sell supplemental insurance to engage in price gouging.
- Launch a new assault on public employees, who have already been hit with wage freezes and furloughs.
Ryan notes that the Obama administration has shown some openness to some of these proposals. But that does not mean that the Ryan plan will have the support of House and Senate Democrats who were elected in 2012 to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And it certainly does not mean that this scheme will appeal to the American people — who know that the better program for meeting the country’s economic challenges starts with asking the wealthiest among us to pay a little more into Social Security and into the general fund.
Paul Ryan assured his Wall Street Journal readers that his latest proposal was a sincere effort to end the “stalemate” in Washington — even as he took swipes at President Obama for “giving Congress the silent treatment.”
Ryan also promises that the approach he proposes “isn’t a grand bargain.”
Sly move there. While his proposal may not be a full “grand bargain” — with all the privatization bells and voucher whistles of past Ryan budgets — the plan that the Wisconsin Republican has rolled out is a down payment on the grand bargain he’s been seeking for years. At a political juncture when Ryan’s Republicans can gin up a “crisis” whenever they like, no one should doubt that the congressman and his generous campaign donors are dreaming dreams of a much grander bargain.