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Who Detoxified Paul Ryan’s Budget?

Feckless Democrats and fawning journalists.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, Tim Kaine responded to a question on Social Security by pivoting to Mike Pence’s longstanding support for privatizing the system. Privatizing, Kaine reminded everyone, would let Wall Street money managers play with Americans’ retirement money in the stock market. Pence tried to deflect and obfuscate, but Kaine interjected: “You have a voting record, Governor.”

While the rest of Kaine’s Social Security talk was lame—he declined, or forgot, to mention that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform call for expanding the program—he effectively hung Pence’s privatization votes around his neck. Kaine and the Democrats know well that Americans have loathed the idea of handing over Social Security dollars to the financial sector ever since George W. Bush crusaded for it, and they’ve never let a single Republican forget their one-time support.

It wasn’t so long ago that another terrible conservative concept had a similar stench. The Paul Ryan budget, rolled out in 2011, was initially synonymous with Republican cruelty and trickle-down economics. The virtual starvation of programs for the poor, the extreme tax cuts for the wealthy, the privatization of Medicare—these all became anchors that could have, should have, weighed down Republicans forever.

But somewhere along the line, Ryan wriggled off the hook. So much so, in fact, that he could announce in public on Wednesday that he intends to jam through the Ryan budget next year under a procedure that bypasses Democratic opposition in Congress—and make that vow without fear of reprisal, right in the heat of election season.

Who’s responsible for detoxifying the Ryan agenda, for legitimizing his radical views on government? Democrats let their foot off the gas when it came to Ryan, after first tarring other Republicans successfully with supporting him. But the press also deserves blame for helping Ryan rehabilitate his discredited positions, by bestowing on him the honorary title of Serious Man of Washington.

What Ryan promised on Wednesday is that if Republicans control both Congress and the White House come January, he’ll use “budget reconciliation” to implement most of what he now calls his Better Way agenda (it used to be the Path to Prosperity). Under reconciliation, Congress can advance anything that primarily affects the budget bottom line with a simple majority vote, including in the Senate, which normally would require beating a 60-vote filibuster to proceed. “This is our game plan for 2017,” Ryan said.

Fortunately, voters appear to have other plans. Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency, and denying Ryan unified control, are growing. And Senate races are tight enough to flip either way, with Democratic control very possible.

But if Ryan, Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell did run Congress, they could unquestionably use reconciliation to ram home the Ryan budget. And that agenda is as radical an overhaul of the federal government as anything that’s come out of Trump’s mouth.

The Better Way repeals most of Obamacare, from the individual and employer mandates to the Medicaid expansion to subsidies for consumers to purchase insurance. It would cut at least $6 trillion in federal spending, with 62 percent of that coming from programs that help low- and moderate-income families. It would “block-grant” a number of anti-poverty programs, giving fixed sums to the states to manage without any federal restrictions (and without the ability to get expanded funding based on need). It would raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 and cripple the program by offering “premium support” for seniors to buy private insurance, fracturing the market and breaking a system that works pretty well. And Ryan’s plan would cut individual and corporate tax rates, with 99.6 percent of the benefits going to the wealthiest 1 percent.

Initially, it looked like Ryan’s extreme agenda would become a death warrant for Republican candidates. In May 2011, the month after Republicans had passed Ryan’s budget on a party-line vote, Republican Congressman Chris Lee resigned, opening up a heavily GOP district in upstate New York. Republicans had a solid candidate, state legislator Jane Corwin; Democrats nominated Kathy Hochul, a moderate county clerk. Hochul immediately got to work savaging the Ryan budget. Corwin had never had a chance to vote for that budget, and she outspent Hochul 2-1 in the race. But Hochul, now New York’s lieutenant governor, won by vowing to preserve social programs from the Ryan budget.

Liberals assumed that the Ryan budget would continue to be poisonous in elections, and that any future efforts to pass it would be punished at the ballot box. But it didn’t materialize that way. Republicans kept passing budgets similar to Ryan’s cuts-for-the-poor, tax-breaks-for-the-rich approach. But though Democrats spent money on campaign ads in 2012 and 2014 that specifically focused on Ryan’s plans to transform Medicare, the attack lost its bite.

Part of this can be attributed to Democratic fecklessness. Even when Ryan was the vice-presidential nominee in 2012—and even when he reiterated that if elected, he and Mitt Romney would pass his budget—this emblem of the conservative domestic policy agenda merely sat in the background of the presidential campaign. Instead, character-based attacks on Romney’s private equity record and statements about 47 percent of the country being moochers took the lead.

Why did Democrats fail to hang Ryan’s wildly unpopular plans around Republicans’ necks? Partly because, by the time he was nominated, Ryan had become somebody Democrats could work with, relative to the Tea Party conservatives who’d swept into the House in 2010. Ron Wyden had joined with Ryan in late 2011 to endorse his Medicare plan. After the election, Patty Murray engineered a “Bipartisan Budget Act” with Ryan in 2013, to avert a government shutdown. When Ryan became Speaker last October, he ushered through another Bipartisan Budget Act. The flack he took on his right for that deal, which increased discretionary spending modestly while offsetting that with other cuts, established him as the sensible alternative (again, relatively), the guy Democrats could deal with in the opposition party.

And this is where media culpability comes in. Reporters and pundits have historically gone to bat for Ryan, exalting him as a legitimate thinker trying to solve problems rather than a dangerous ideologue. Politifact helped negate Democrats’ Medicare attacks by calling them the 2011 “Lie of the Year.” Nobody in Congress gets more loving profiles, dating from before he became the Veep nominee or Speaker to the present day. That Ryan’s budgets were mainly snake oil, that his plans would have dire consequences for every American without a trust fund, usually get edited out of the story.

Even today, the media assists Ryan when he tries to distance himself from Donald Trump—when in reality, Trump would likely be little more than an autopen as president, signing whatever noxious policy Ryan shuttled through the House and put on his desk. Despite this, the media almost affords him sympathy for his plight about dealing with Trump (he’s campaigning with Trump on Saturday, so it can’t be that wrenching), rather than recognizing his role as the author of the agenda the next Republican president will carry out.

The normalization of Ryan as a serious, honest figure allows him to put out as radical a budget as would ever be initiated in American history without anyone batting an eyelash. This may not come back to sting the country next year, if Trump falls the way his poll numbers currently suggest. But at some not-too-distant point, when conservatives capture the entire government, they’ll be able to implement this blueprint, the Ryan budget, that should have been made into nuclear waste long ago.