The marvel of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, which the House of Representatives approved this week, is that for a piece of legislation that's essentially dead on arrival in the Senate, it's going to live on as a political document from now until November. That was the point, of course, but it seems more likely that Republicans will regret its passage than Democrats.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that the GOP has the upper hand in the midterm elections, and polls seem to bear that out. As recently as a few weeks ago, statistical wunderkind Nate Silver viewed Republicans as being the slight favorites to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats this year. Public concerns over the shaky rollout of health care reform and the drop in President Barack Obama's approval rating (which at an average of 48 percent since his reelection actually hews pretty closely to the typical 49 percent of presidential second terms, according to Gallup numbers) are seen as giving the GOP a distinct advantage at the polls.
Under those circumstances, one might expect Republicans to play it safe, but instead they have chosen to double down on the same economic message that proved so disastrous for Mitt Romney two years ago. The Ryan budget seeks to achieve deficit reduction purely through cuts and almost exclusively through reductions in programs that benefit the poor and middle class while sparing the wealthy and big business and expanding military spending.
Not a single Democrat voted for the Ryan budget, and a dozen Republicans jumped ship, too. It kills Obamacare — naturally — but keeps its associated tax increases while simultaneously slashing Medicaid by $700 billion. Medicare would be converted into a voucher program. Meanwhile, there are major cuts to medical research, food stamps, Pell Grants for college tuition, school lunches and many other popular social programs.
Such a plan no doubt plays well at tea party rallies and in conservative districts. (Why protecting the interests of the rich and special interests like big energy companies plays so well in red states dogged by poverty and poor performing public schools remains a political curiosity.) But it's probably not a formula for attracting independents or other potential crossover voters in the general election. Perhaps Republicans are just expecting those folks to stay home.
GOP leaders call the House Budget Committee chairman's proposal a "messaging bill," and it's certainly that. But its message appears to be that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed, the hungry should go hungry, tax loopholes are good things, and the 7 million Americans who signed up for Obamacare shouldn't have health insurance.
It's also a fantasy. Its expectation of achieving a balanced budget in five years depends on the same kind of dynamic scoring — the expectation that a tax cut will more than pay for itself by increasing economic activity — that's been disproved many times before. Simply tossing millions of Americans under the proverbial bus isn't going to improve their quality of life, and it's certainly not going to put the nation's economy on the right track.
If Republicans wanted to get serious about deficit reduction, they would need to devise a more balanced plan that both raises taxes on those who can afford it and reduces spending in a manner that does not poke holes in the social safety net. Democrats would have to do the same, as that's the only rational way to address the problem. But don't expect either side to be so honest. Instead, the political conversation will now be dominated by a proposal that is "red meat" (for good or ill) to partisans in both major political parties.
How disappointing. Remember when Mr. Ryan went on his listening tour to better understand the plight of the poor and where federal programs have failed? It appears all he came away with was the observation that "inner city" men (presumably he meant African-Americans) are "not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work." Once again, the last refuge of those who would turn their back to the disadvantaged is always the claim that it's in their best interest.
Just as Mr. Romney's infamous observation about the "47 percent" of Americans "dependent on government" and who see themselves as "victims" undercut his candidacy in 2012, it's difficult to believe the Ryan budget won't inspire a similar backlash in the general election. His vision is one that will win primaries in conservative House districts but is likely to lose more moderate statewide races.
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