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Paul Ryan Is Still Selling His Rejected Agenda, Now With Populist Rhetoric

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If you flip through the pages of the Republican National Committee's 2012 election post-mortem, you'll find plenty of familiar homilies to the importance of good messaging, and very few about the importance of policy to the building of a national political coalition.

But outside its pages, Republicans actually gained one important insight: that the party's obsessive genuflecting to job creators is alienating to the vast majority of voters. A week after the election, in the pages of National Review, conservative writer and party reformer Ramesh Ponnuru explained, "The Republican story about how societies prosper—not just the Romney story—dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator."

Speaking over a year later at no less a temple to capitalism than the American Enterprise Institute, the GOP Senate leader himself borrowed Ponnuru's observation. Republicans, Mitch McConnell lamented, "have often lost sight of the fact that our average voter is not John Galt."

Outside the precincts of elite conservatism, this sounded like a penetrating glimpse into the obvious. But it was actually a pretty big breakthrough. Particularly considering that the party's 2012 campaign was in essence a giant totem to the entrepreneur—whose successes are borne of pure grit and whose shortcomings are at least partially rooted in the rapaciousness of those who rely on public services, and the party that makes job creators pay for them.

What made it promising is that the GOP's job-creator fetish is more than just a talking point. It is both progenitor and progeny of the party's policy agenda. If it's a problem, then the agenda has a problem as well. And so do its guardians. Intentionally or unintentionally, this sentiment posed a challenge to them. Now Paul Ryan, who authored the agenda, has answered the challenge—not by fashioning a less plutocratic agenda, but by shoehorning the old one into a different rhetorical frame.

In a remarkably under-covered Tuesday speech in D.C., Ryan replaced his oft-drawn dichotomy between makers and takers, and the linked concepts of debt and dependency, with "the American Idea"—enshrined by the Declaration of Independence—which he defined as "self-government under the rule of law." In context, he's extolling individual and not democratic self-government, which is crucial to the new narrative, because it allows him to claim that, by sheer coincidence, everything in his democratically rejected policy agenda is consistent with this foundational American Idea, and everything Democrats have done for the last five years is not.

It is possible that Ryan and Ryan alone has a lock on what the American Idea really is, and thus that his reforms are the only ones crafted in its image. But it's a bit more possible that he needs a new way to sell an unpopular platform and, in reverse engineering a fresh pitch, trespassed into question-begging, to cast his plan as Founder-approved.

This is standard conservative reductio ad Founderum. But the implications of his argument fail in every particular—and in two cases, were defeated by developments that made headlines just this past week.

For the story Ryan tells to be credible, the public would have had to accept earlier expansions of the safety net (Social Security, then Medicare) without any hint of anxiety, because those programs are consistent with the American Idea, but have rejected Obamacare because it is not. He would also have to demonstrate that Medicare and Social Security require dramatic and rapid reforms to be salvaged. None of this is true.

"[Progressives] say everything they’ve done in the past five years is a logical extension of the safety net," Ryan said. "If you liked Medicare, you’ll love Obamacare. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Instead, the people have resisted. And the Left is baffled. Why support the safety net but not progressivism? ... [Because] the safety net jibes with self-government; progressive bureaucracy does not. The one gives people more control over their lives, while the other takes it away."

Let's check in again 50 years from now, when Obamacare is as old and deeply rooted as Medicare is today. But when they were Obamacare's age, Medicare, and Social Security before it, were met with the very same kind of right-wing freakout that has for the time being rendered the concept of Obamacare unpopular. And while Obamacare is nominally unpopular, most of its beneficiaries—including 74 percent of Republican beneficiaries—are satisfied, according to a Commonwealth survey. Some of these people likely don't realize that their coverage is Obamacare, and thus still claim to dislike the law. But that's only a testament to conservative messaging and liberal squeamishness, not to the failings of the program. They like Obamacare and would be upset about what would happen if Republicans repealed it. Which is to say that Obamacare's already more like Medicare today than Ryan would have you think. Not just because it's embedded itself in the firmament of American social policy, but because, in Ryan's words, it "gives people more control over their lives." Earlier this year, we learned that one of the law's most pronounced effects will be to weaken the link between employment and health insurance, allowing many more people than expected to leave jobs they dislike, whether to retire early or pursue other careers or interests. Just like Social Security and Medicare do. Ryan and the rest of the GOP were furious.

In attempting to distinguish between the two programs in this way, though, Ryan concedes that the social contract underlying Social Security and Medicare is fundamentally fair. Just not so fair that they don't require precisely the kinds of dramatic reforms he proposes for them.

"Social Security and Medicare are going broke—they’ve been going broke for years," Ryan claimed, undeterred by the somewhat self-refuting nature of the statement.

Ironically, as he was giving the speech, serious health wonks elsewhere were thumbing through the latest update from the Congressional Budget Office, which concluded that the slowing growth of health spending will leave Medicare solvent until 2030, five years longer than previously expected. This is part of an ongoing trend that former CBO director, and Obama's first Office of Management and Budget director, Peter Orszag called the "biggest fiscal policy development in the past three decades."

In the face of this evidence, Ryan has made no revisions to his basic view of what should happen to Medicare.

"Every idea I’ve proposed would give people more control over their future," he said. "They paid in all these years so they would have health insurance. Why not let them choose their health insurance? More choice means more control, which means more freedom. The argument for conservatism isn’t just that it’s more efficient—it’s the heart of self-government. And the problem with progressivism isn’t just that it’s more expensive. The problem is it undermines self-government."

Setting aside the fact that Obamacare is also designed to let people choose from among many health plans, I have some great news for Ryan. Seniors on Medicare can choose their health insurance too, and many of them do. Almost a third of beneficiaries opt into Medicare Advantage instead of the government payer. But of course that's not what Ryan has in mind. He wants to fuse these programs—to make Medicare just like Obamacare (while repealing Obamacare itself for undermining self-government), and thus hasten the decline of the government payer.

But he wanted to do these things before health spending slowed, and he wanted to do them back when the stated objective of the Republican policy agenda was shrinking government to knock people out of the giant hammock the safety net has supposedly come to resemble. "Self-government under the rule of law" had nothing to do with it, until Ryan realized his old ideas needed new packaging.