By Brendan Loy
Paul Ryan says Democratic distortion and demagoguery of his Medicare plan is to blame for a special-election loss in a New York congressional district yesterday, which is being touted as a sign of a building Dem comeback from their 2010 shellacking.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the Ryan plan is genuinely worth of criticism — even harsh criticism — on a variety of fronts, most notably that it forces the poor, the elderly (well, the future elderly) and the needy to bear a disproportionate share of the burden for getting our fiscal house in order, while simultaneously lowering taxes on the wealthy in service of the Republican fantasy that such tax cuts somehow don’t add to deficits, which, of course, they do. All serious analysts know that we need to cut spending and increase revenue — not either/or, but both/and — in order to solve our budget crisis. By that test, Ryan’s plan is fundamentally unserious.
On the other hand, Ryan’s plan had the potential to be the opening salvo in a serious conversation, an actual adult dialogue about this issue. If the Democrats respond by attacking its flaws — and, again, there’s nothing wrong with doing so harshly, to the extent those flaws are worthy of harsh criticism, so long as the harsh criticism is properly targeted — while offering a viable alternative that spreads the pain more equitably but still inflicts the necessary pain, that would be one thing. If they respond with ruthless, demagogic “Mediscare” tactics, without offering an honest, viable alternative, that’s another thing entirely. And if they succeed in the latter approach, and Washington once again learns the lesson that entitlements are (still) the third rail of American politics, that’s a disaster, and we’re well and truly doomed.
I haven’t followed the politics of this too closely in recent months, but my sense is that the Democratic response so far has a lot more of the latter (demagogic) approach than the former (responsible) one. And frankly, I’m not sure what political incentive they have to do otherwise. As with the debt ceiling and a wide variety of other issues, the shallowness and ignorance of the average voter creates an almost irresistible temptation for politicians of all stripes to misbehave in this fashion when the politics of an issue tilt in their favor. The end result is that we become increasingly ungovernable as a nation — incapable of tackling and solving big problems whose solutions require painful choices — as these demagogic techniques seemingly get more and more sophisticated and effective. In other words, we move closer to the event horizon.
Maybe some sort of grand bargain will simultaneously defuse the GOP’s feckless demagoguery on the debt ceiling/taxation and the Dems’ feckless demagoguery on Medicare, putting us on a marginally more sustainable course without first jumping off a cliff. Maybe the Democrats will listen to Bill Clinton, who, while harshly criticizing the Ryan plan today, also said, “I’m afraid the Democrats will draw the conclusion that because Congressman Ryan’s proposal is not the right one, that we shouldn’t do anything. I completely disagree with that.” (Of course, it’s easy to say we should do something; it’s harder to specify precisely what.)
Or maybe the Dems will take the easy course, and President Obama will go down in history as the president who, on the brink of a national fiscal crisis, won re-election with the age-old “Mediscare” trick, thus effectively taking meaningful entitlement reform off the table for an indeterminate period of time, once again kicking the can down America’s ever shortening road to ruin. If so, f*** him.
I still think Obama’s heart is in the right place on this. But in the end, unless his actions prove me right, I don’t give a s*** where his heart is. There is no excuse for a leader failing to lead. Well, no, that’s not right — there are plenty of excuses, but we must be steadfast in ignoring them, because unless we demand leadership of our leaders, even (or especially) when it’s difficult to exercise it, why do we bother with any of this?
As I’ve previously made clear, I’m already greatly unimpressed with Obama’s approach to the fiscal crisis, and profoundly uncomfortable with his apparent strategy of delaying meaningful entitlement reform until his second term. One reason for my discomfort is that if, in the mean time, the Democrats achieve a great political victory next year by relentlessly demagoguing entitlement reform (albeit a flawed vision of it), I’m incredibly skeptical that they’ll be able to suddenly shift gears and start governing responsibly on the issue. Even if Obama wants to do that, it may again prove “politically infeasible,” and he’ll have to “delay” it again. At which point I won’t be uncomfortable or skeptical, but apoplectic. For now, I reserve final judgment. But I am concerned.