Washington Post editorial writer Ruth Marcus imagines the fabled "adult conversation" on Medicare between President Obama and Paul Ryan:
Barack: The current system can’t go on. I wouldn’t say this publicly, but my party’s wrong to pretend it can. Still, your approach goes way too far. Seniors would get help to buy private insurance but would pay a lot more than they do now.
And over time, because the vouchers rise only with inflation, not with medical costs, beneficiaries would have to pay even more. They’re not going to be able to afford it, not with median incomes of less than $21,000. And why should they? You’re forced to make deep cuts in Medicare because you won’t agree to raise taxes and that’s the only other way to get to balance.
Paul: Look, I could maybe support higher taxes as part of an overall deal. I just can’t admit that. On costs, my plan gives extra subsidies to the poorest, sickest and oldest seniors. If those aren’t big enough, we could talk. But it makes sense for wealthier seniors to pay more. And what about the general concept? Could you accept the idea if the subsidy grew at a rate higher than regular inflation?
If you want to understand why Ryan garners such astonishingly good press, one reason is that he speaks in coded terms that convey to Washington centrists that he shares their values, without any substantive acts to back this up. Marcus imagines Ryan as somebody who would really like to make a deal that raises taxes, but can't admit it. Where is the evidence for that belief? Ryan is a disciple of Jack Kemp, a supply-sider, who was among those right-wingers who pushed George W. Bush to enact even larger debt-financed tax cuts. Ryan has consistently supported the goals of anti-tax fanatics, and voted against the Bowles-Simpson plan that increased revenue even in the course of slashing tax rates. (And, oh yeah, his massive cuts to Medicaid would in fact make low-income seniors bear the highest brunt of his cuts.)
But Ryan is smart enough to couch his views in the language of the fiscal scold. And so he manages to maintain the loyalty of conservatives who theologically oppose any tax increase while also garnering the sympathy of fiscal scolds who believe that tax increases are necessary. It is quite a trick.
But the trick certainly explains the belief of people like Marcus that attacking the cruelty of Ryan's plan is mean and counterproductive. After all, it may be literally true that Ryan's plan would entail certain severe consequences, but surely Ryan doesn't really want those things to happen. Or, at least, in his heart he wants to cut a reasonable deal, so it's not quite fair to judge him on the basis of what his plan would actually do.