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The Path To Prosperity And The True Republican Agenda

My (subscriber only) TRB column evaluates Paul Ryan's budget on its own terms:

The new GOP budget unveiled by Paul Ryan is a wildly cruel document. Yet pointing this out, as Democrats keep doing, seems only to flatter Ryan’s self-conception as a serious man telling hard truths. So let me instead concede Ryan’s moral premises. (Throw tens of millions of people off health care? Why not! Slash food stamps? It’ll just inspire the next Dickens!) Instead, let’s judge Ryan by his own standards. Does his plan, however cruel, actually address our fiscal realities? No, it doesn’t. 

James Pethokoukis, a conservative pundit plugged in to the GOP, says, "what GOP support there was for Obama/Bowles/Simpson debt panel plan is collapsing thanks to Ryan Plan." David Frum calls this "the impossible destroying the possible." He may be right -- perhaps Republicans are so intoxicated by the possibility of the total victory promised by Ryan that they're foregoing the half a loaf they can actually attain.

But the implication of my column, which argues that Ryan's "Road to Prosperity" would probably not handle the deficit even if passed into law next week, suggests otherwise. After all, if Ryan's plan is a lousy debt-reduction vehicle, what is it good for? It's a terrific vehicle for advancing the conservative social policy agenda. And if Republicans agree to a debt compromise, they'll lose the urgency of the debt crisis to force the changes to government they could not otherwise achieve. Who's going to agree to draconian cuts in Medicaid and Medicare without the threat of fiscal collapse dangling over our heads?

Now, granted, Frum is right -- Republicans can get some version of Bowles-Simpson, and they can't get the "Path to Prosperity." But they can always hope to win the 2012 election and get their Ryan budget then. And if they don't really care all that much about debt, at least in comparison with the goals of slashing top tax rates and programs for the poor, then their decision is not a crazy misjudgment but a perfectly sane calculation.