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End Game: What David Brooks Won't Admit About Paul Ryan's Budget Plan

David Brooks thinks Rep. Paul Ryan's balanced-budget plan is a fine "starting point" for future discussion about the nation's fiscal challenges. End point is more like it. Turns out the Wisconsin Republican's "Path to Prosperity" amounts to an even more radical deconstruction of government than he let on, reports Washington think-tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget plan specifies a long-term spending path that means that, by 2050, most of the federal government aside from Social Security, health care, and defense would literally cease to exist, according to figures in a Congressional Budget Office report that was released on Tuesday.
Over the next four decades, Ryan's spending cuts would reduce federal outlays to 14.75 percent of GDP. That would be the lowest level since 1951 -- well before government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start even existed. To make his numbers work, the lawmaker is also forced to assume that U.S. unemployment will fall to 2.8 percent by 2028, an absurdly low and all but unprecedented jobless rate.
Brooks' point of departure in the deficit-reduction debate, in short, is fantasyland. The only reason the NYT columnist wants to frame it in those terms is because that's where he would like the conversation to begin. And fair enough. Scribblers like him (and me) deal in arguments that may or may not coincide with the facts. But surely a better starting point for discussing the nation's accounts must adhere to reality. If not, then let me posit an alternate one, where tax cuts for the wealthy aren't funded by tax hikes for the middle class.
I love you, you're perfect, now change

While Brooks is slippery, he's not nuts. Because even he concedes that the Path to Prosperity is, well, not very good:
As presently configured, it is unacceptable to moderate voters and stands no chance of passage. Substantively, it does not address the structural problems plaguing the American economy: wage stagnation, inequality, declining growth rates. It doesn't have an answer to rising health care costs. Nor does it leave room for future policy creativity; there's no money to allow future generations to rise to unforeseen challenges.
Other than that, the Ryan plan is just peachy. But why is Brooks so eager to characterize Ryan's budget as simply a rhetorical spark for national discussion rather than a real statement of intent? Because as a matter of public policy the plan is being chewed to pieces. It's also political poison, and not only for Democrats. From the AP:
Mindful of the political risks, most Republican presidential hopefuls treaded gingerly after House Republicans unveiled a budget plan that would slash federal spending by about $5 trillion over 10 years while revamping health programs for the elderly and poor.

Several, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, praised the budget's sponsor, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, but stopped short of fully endorsing the blueprint and didn't indicate whether they backed the massive changes in Medicare and Medicaid. Others, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were silent on the plan.

For a conservative like Ryan, you know you're in trouble when Gingrich -- the last pol to try to kill Medicare and a guy who would gab through Doomsday -- is too busy staring at his wingtips to weigh in. Another leading Republican, Mitt Romney, has also kept his head down.

Gamesmanship by potential presidential contenders? Sure. And that's anchored by their recognition that Ryan's ideas are certain to be deeply unpopular with millions of Americans, including seniors, the poor and disabled, and anyone whose salary has fewer than seven figures in it. That isn't because people are unwilling to "confront the implications of their choices," as Brooks claims. Quite the opposite -- they're just fine with confronting the implications of Ryan's plan, and rejecting them.

Paul Ryan photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

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