Paul Ryan has had his eyes on Social Security for a long time.
In 2001, when Republicans controlled the presidency and were well positioned on Capitol Hill, Ryan was invited to the White House to present ideas to the new Bush-Cheney administration.
The well-regarded second-term congressman met with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at the peak of his co-presidency powers. Like Cheney in his younger years, Ryan was a former congressional aide who had worked the conservative think-tank circuit before getting himself elected to the House. The Washington insiders should have gotten on famously.
But the vice president was not buying what the man, who is now described as “the intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” was selling.
Ryan recalls the meeting this way:
“The surplus has given us a huge opportunity,” I explained. “If we dedicate the Social Security surplus to reform, we can shore up the program and end the raid on the trust fund.” I talked about the opportunity to create a real ownership society, how workers could actually own a piece of the free enterprise system through these reforms. As soon as I finished my pitch, Vice President Cheney said, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.” Then he looked at the person sitting next to me, signaling that he was ready to hear the next idea. His terse reply was the verbal equivalent of someone swatting an annoying mosquito from his face.
Thats’s not the only point in his new book where Ryan writes of getting the “annoying mosquito” treatment. The House Budget Committee chairman paints a dim picture of fellow Republicans who get weak in the knees whenever he starts prattling on about dismantling Social Security as we know it. Needless to say, he is even more relentless in his criticisms of President Obama and the Democrats on this issue.
What Ryan never quite recognizes is that Cheney, for all his conservatism, has always been something of a realist when it comes to domestic politics. (He saves his neoconservative flights of fantasy for foreign-policy debates.) Like Ryan, Cheney learned his politics in Wisconsin. Though he was raised in Wyoming, the future vice president cut his political teeth as an aide to former Governor Warren Knowles and then to Wisconsin Congressman William Steiger.
Knowles and Steiger were mainstream Republicans of a sort rarely seen any longer in a Grand Old Party that has abandoned most of its “Party of Lincoln” pretensions. Both had their conservative sides, but they also had what Cheney described in his own autobiography as “formidable political skills.” Those skills were rooted in an understanding that, to govern, one first had to be elected—and that, even in a political age that has been increasingly warped by Wall Street money, voters tend to reject candidates who threaten necessary and valued federal programs.
This is something Ryan struggles with, in part because he’s been sheltered until recently from a lot of political realities. The congressman’s House elections have come relatively easily, thanks to increasingly favorable district lines and (until the recent challenges of Democrat Rob Zerban) relatively lax opposition. But, as the congressman recounts in his new book, the Romney-Ryan ticket lost in 2012—by a 5 million popular-vote margin and a 332-206 Electoral College landslide.
“Why did we lose? How did it happen?” Ryan writes. “Why does the Republican Party seem to keep losing ground?”
The point of the congressman’s book is to answer those questions. But Ryan never gets there. Instead, he bogs down in pop psychology and strategic talking points—failing to recognize that Dick Cheney sorted it all out for him in 2001.
The American people do not want to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as part of some austerity scheme to balance budgets on the shoulders of the elderly, people with disabilities and children whose families cannot afford healthcare. And despite all the scaremongering that underpins “entitlement reform” debates, they have come to recognize that they do not have sacrifice in the way Ryan says they must.
Budgeting is all about priorities. Congress chooses which programs to preserve and which to diminish or dismantle. Congress also chooses whether to cover the costs by asking more from those who can afford to pay or to do so by shifting the burden to those most in need. The American people get this. And they want their leaders to respond to proposals to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by saying, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.”
Cheney has been around politics long enough to understand this dynamic, not because he is a liberal, and not because he is disinclined toward schemes for redistributing the wealth upward. The man who did so much to privatize the military when he was in charge at the Pentagon would undoubtedly love to privatize some domestic programs, if he could see a politically palatable way to pull it off. When the Bush-Cheney administration tried in its second term to restructure Social Security, the vice president loyally followed the script—making statements that sounded themes familiar to Ryan—until the initiative collapsed. But entitlement reform was never really the vice president’s thing; in his biography he wrote of a time when “[e]ven I had to struggle to stay awake as I slogged through a speech on Medicare reform.”
When there is no politically palatable option, Cheney’s often been a “not-going-to-do-that” kind of guy. As a former secretary of defense in the mid-1990s, he entertained a 1996 presidential bid but then abandoned the project when no one seemed interested. Cheney recognized then, as he appeared to again in his 2001 “annoying mosquito” conversation with Ryan, that domestic political calculations require at least some deference to the wisdom of the American people.
Today that wisdom says that the United States need not, and must not, slash the social safety net in order to advance reforms that will be very good for Wall Street but very bad for Main Street. Until Paul Ryan accepts this reality, he will remain stuck on the same questions. Indeed, if the Republicans nominate the ambitious young congressman for president in 2016, and if he runs on the agenda Dick Cheney swatted away fifteen years earlier, Ryan will again find himself asking, “Why did we lose? How did it happen? Why does the Republican Party seem to keep losing ground.”
Read Next: George Zornick on why for many politicians and 2016 contenders, Ferguson is invisible.