Meet the GOP's Young Guns: Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy
Representative Paul Ryan
by John Nichols
If the Tea Party really is all about debts, deficits, spending and taxes—as opposed to the witchcraft, immigrant-bashing, birther fantasies and generalized Obama-hatred that forms its caricature—then Paul Ryan is the movement's Congressman. Handsome, good-natured and blessed with an ability to reduce the most complicated fiscal issues to conservative talking points that just happen to echo Wall Street's wish list, the Wisconsin representative has none of the rough edges of Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul. He is resolutely polite, certain without being overbearing, confident at the debate podium and, to a greater extent than any prominent Republican of the past two decades, Reaganesque.
Unfortunately, he has something else in common with the fortieth president: an approach to budget issues that owes more to Ayn Rand's paranoid fears about making even the most minimal civic demands on "productive" elites than to facts, figures or economic realism. Ryan's devotion to Rand, the author of dystopian novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and a favorite of the Tea Party movement's Glenn Beck wing, is fanatical. He requires Congressional staffers to read Rand's books and heaps praise on the prophetess of selfishness in YouTube videos that even fellow Republicans quietly acknowledge are unsettling.
Like another Rand devotee, former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, Ryan sees government not just as the "problem" Reagan described but as a greater threat to freedoms than the most extreme Tea Partisans imagine. Come January the Wisconsinite, who at 40 is one of the youngest members of Congress, will finally be in a position to address that perceived threat as chair of the Budget Committee, perhaps the most important in the new House. But this is not a case of an outsider storming the battlements and seizing a position of power. For all his Tea Party trappings, Ryan is a consummate insider, with a DC résumé extending back to the days of the first Bush presidency. This native of the hard-pressed Wisconsin factory town of Janesville spent almost a decade as an aide to conservative senators and twelve years representing a swing district that previously sent Democrat Les Aspin to chair the House Armed Services Committee. Ryan is about to put his long apprenticeship to work as one of the most definitional members of the new Congress.
Ryan's role as Budget Committee chair is almost certain to put him in conflict with President Obama, with whom the Congressman clashed earlier this year during a session on budget matters and entitlement spending. That, in turn, will buttress a profile that is sufficiently prominent to have stirred speculation that Ryan might be a 2012 GOP vice presidential prospect and, ultimately, a presidential contender.
A natural campaigner and landslide winner in a district that voted for Obama, Ryan has meticulously extended his influence in recent months as a star speaker on the Tea Party circuit, a campaigner for fellow Republicans and a guest on Beck's radio show and on Fox TV. Ryan now has a formal platform from which to argue for the radical shift in spending priorities outlined in his Roadmap for America's Future. That document, which he drafted as his party's prospects sank toward the close of George W. Bush's presidency, became an unofficial manifesto for economic conservatives during the 2010 election season.
Ryan, a faithful follower of free-market orthodoxies outlined by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, will thus be the highest-profile advocate for what many imagine to be "Reaganomics" since Reagan. But Ryan goes much further than did the fortieth president. The Congressman's latest version of the Roadmap for America's Future would:
§ begin the process of privatizing Social Security;
§ replace Medicare as we know it and most of Medicaid with a voucher program that would eventually reduce the value of the vouchers;
§ abolish the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP);
§ abolish the corporate income tax;
§ abolish the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax;
§ eliminate income taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest;
§ provide across-the-board tax cuts to even the richest Americans;
§ explore flat tax and consumption tax models that do away with progressive taxation.
Those proposals are sure to provoke fights—not just with the White House and Congressional Democrats but with some Republicans too. When Ryan proposed an alternative budget in 2009, it won only 137 votes in the House, with thirty-eight Republicans joining Democrats to oppose the plan. Ryan was sharply criticized in 2009 for failing to make even a minimal attempt to balance his budget proposal.
Dismissing Ryan's Roadmap as a "sham," Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman says that, if implemented, it would cause a $4 trillion revenue shortfall over the next decade. Krugman frets that Ryan's approach "would raise taxes for 95 percent of the population" while cutting them for corporations and the wealthiest Americans so deeply that policy-makers would be faced with a choice between gutting popular programs like Medicare and ballooning the deficit.
Even sympathetic economists like Ted Gayer argue that Republicans would need to amend many of Ryan's proposals in order to avoid a severe revenue shortfall. But Ryan's fans, led by former House majority leader and Tea Party patron Dick Armey, are mustering a coalition to oppose any such compromise. Armey promises to use his FreedomWorks network to promote the Roadmap. Ryan's ideas "will be taken more seriously if there are outside forces [pressuring] members of Congress," Armey says. "Republicans have been too timid to make his arguments. Now those same ideas have a ready-made audience."
Ryan is ready. Like Greenspan, he's a true-believing long-distance runner who will devote all the time it takes to popularize ideas borrowed from the economic fringe and the Ayn Rand library. He won't implement his agenda in 2011. His purpose is to shape the debate and, with the help of Armey's Tea Party and its amen corner in the media, position Republicans for 2012 victories that he believes will allow him to design a future in which Wall Street has our Social Security money, Medicare is a memory and billionaire Atlases can shrug off the last of their tax burdens and regulatory responsibilities.