In his recent biography of Ronald Reagan, historian H.W. Brands notes how Reagan the orator differed from the “flexible pragmatism” he demonstrated as president.
“There are really two Reagans,” Brands told me in an interview in 2016. “One is the rhetorical Reagan, you could call it the ‘candidate Reagan,” who says exactly the things that conservatives today love to hear.”
“But then there was the Reagan who was actually president, and who believed that the purpose of getting elected was to govern — to make progress toward the things you’ve been talking about. And who understood that progress comes incrementally,” Brands told me. “Reagan used to say that he’d rather get 80% of what he wanted than go over the cliff with his flags flying.”
In the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent announcement that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election in 2018, much of the shoddy commentary declaring him a “failure” and a “hypocrite” managed to miss this point entirely.
For nearly two decades, Ryan had been a voice of fiscal rectitude, warning of the dangers of high taxes, large deficits and suffocating government debt. But as a leader, Ryan was forced to sublimate his enthusiasm for scaling back Social Security and other entitlements in favor of more mainstream crowd-pleasers. And some of them, most notably the recent $1.5 trillion tax cut, made the deficit worse. Like Reagan, who signed a large tax cut followed by several smaller tax increases, Ryan was forced to settle for incremental progress towards lessening the burden of government in our lives.
With all due respect to Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, the greatest acting job of the past year has been performed by Democrats suddenly outraged over the excessive level of government debt America currently carries. During Barack Obama’s presidency, federal debt nearly doubled, from $10.63 trillion to $19.4 trillion. Yet only when Republicans upped the debt by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years did progressives begin buying smelling salts in bulk.
Ryan’s pet issues remain even as he exits. Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has noted that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, publicly-held federal debt is expected to balloon to $82 trillion over the next three decades, due entirely to cash shortages in Medicare and Social Security and the need to pay interest on those deficits. In 2009, even Obama emphasized the need to reform these entitlement programs, saying we had “kicked this can down the road,” further noting that “we are now at the end of the road” and “not in a position to kick it any further.” (Spoiler alert: If a tomato can football hall of fame existed, Obama would hold the record for longest field goal.)
Surely, entitlement reforms are a tough sell, especially in an election year. There’s a better chance of Stormy Daniels being invited to a summer cookout at Mar-a-Lago than there is of congressional candidates tackling Social Security and Medicare spending just before voters start casting ballots.
But if Republicans recognize that 2018 is going to be a brutal year for their party, it would make sense to pass some common-sense reforms while they still control the House and Senate. There is a limited window to make modest changes to entitlement programs that will help guarantee their solvency — changes that could even be sold to the public in a palatable way.
For instance, as Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru has suggested, simply tying Social Security benefit increases to prices rather than wages would reduce the deficit in the program by 94% over the next 75 years. Even reducing benefits for the top 40% of wealthy Americans and increasing payouts for the lowest 30% of recipients could both make the program more solvent and pass political muster. (Similarly, in Ryan’s previous plans to save Medicare, he means-tested benefits: Those with higher incomes would be asked to pay more for coverage, while the poor would receive more aid.)
Even if a GOP-led Congress can’t stomach these reforms before the election, Republicans should be able to move forward in a lame-duck session after the November results are known. Such entitlement changes, which could slow America’s march toward $2 trillion annual deficits, could be added to the budget, which is unlikely to be passed before then.
If Congress acts soon — which it must do to stave off significant future tax increases — there’s even an off-chance voters reward them for taking bold, necessary action. In places like Wisconsin, voters re-elected Gov. Scott Walker twice after he made controversial decisions to weaken public employee unions; virtually everyone in Ryan’s Wisconsin district has heard him talk about his plans to scale back entitlements, and yet he has never won his district by less than double digits.
If Republicans see big losses coming in November, they should go down fighting while they can. Reforms to entitlements are coming at some point — it only makes sense to craft them now when they require modest controls instead of large tax increases.
And in doing so, Ryan can silence his liberal critics attacking him for saying one thing and doing another. America anxiously awaits their gushing columns when he proves to be a man of his word.