Vox founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein was perhaps the leading liberal proponent of the idea that Paul Ryan’s hatred of deficits during the Obama years was misguided but rooted in something resembling sincerity. And now that the House Speaker is on his way out, Klein is boldly stepping forward to say that, hey, this Paul Ryan character might have been less than truthful about his real aims.
On Vox today, Klein writes (emphasis mine):
Ryan’s reputation was built on the back of his budgets: draconian documents that gutted social spending, privatized Medicare, and showed the Republican Party had embraced the kinds of hard fiscal choices that Bush had sloughed off. And Ryan presented himself as the wonkish apostle of this new GOP, rolling up his sleeves and running through the charts, graphs, and tables that made his case.
I was among the reporters who took Ryan’s reboot seriously. “To move us to surpluses,” I wrote of his 2010 proposal, “Ryan’s budget proposes reforms that are nothing short of violent. Medicare is privatized. Seniors get a voucher to buy private insurance, and the voucher’s growth is far slower than the expected growth of health-care costs. Medicaid is also privatized. The employer tax exclusion is fully eliminated, replaced by a tax credit that grows more slowly than medical costs.”
I didn’t agree with Ryan’s policies, but at least he was making the trade-offs of his vision clear. Here was a Republican who said what he was going to do, who admitted his health care plan included “rationing,” who offered something specific to argue with. That was progress.
Is it progress for someone who wants to destroy the safety net of poor people to admit in white papers that they want to destroy the safety net of poor people while campaigning on language about lifting up poor people? I don’t think so, but then again, I’ve never started my own media empire, so.
Either way, as Klein himself points out, there was really never any reason for pundits or even the most flatlining neoliberal economists to take Ryan’s Realistic Look at the Budget seriously:
But to critics like the New York Times’s Paul Krugman, Ryan was an obvious con man weaponizing the deficit to hamstring Obama’s presidency, weaken the recovery, and snooker Beltway centrists eager to champion a reasonable-seeming Republican. Ryan, after all, had voted for Bush’s deficits — he was a yes on the tax cuts, on the wars, on Medicare Part D. He proposed a Social Security privatization scheme so pricey that even the Bush administration dismissed it as “irresponsible.”
I wouldn’t balance the budget in anything like the way Ryan proposes. His solution works by making care less affordable for seniors. I’d prefer to aggressively reform the system itself so the care becomes cheaper, even if that causes significant pain to providers. I also wouldn’t waste money by moving to a private system when the public system is cheaper. But his proposal is among the few I’ve seen that’s willing to propose solutions in proportion to the problem. Whether or not you like his answer, you have to give him credit for stepping up to the chalkboard.
And now let’s get to the paragraph a lot of you will flay me for: I don’t think Ryan is a charlatan or a flim-flam artist. More to the point, I think he’s playing an important role, and one I’m happy to try and help him play: The worlds of liberals and conservatives are increasingly closed loops. Very few politicians from one side are willing to seriously engage with the other side, particularly on substance. Substance is scary. Substance is where you can be made to look bad. And substance has occasionally made Ryan look bad. But the willingness to engage has made him look good. It’s given some people the information they need to decide him a charlatan, and others the information they need to decide him a bright spot. It’s also given Ryan a much deeper understanding of liberal ideas than most conservative politicians have.
For a long time, liberals were talking about the sort of things you would actually have to do to get health-care spending under control while conservatives simply criticized the downsides of those intimidating reforms. And the main thing you have to do is get health-care spending into a single budget and then stick to it. You can do that by having the government set payment rates for providers or by having it set subsidies for individuals. Democrats were admitting this and thus taking on the burden of its problems, while Republicans were simply denying it.
Ryan’s proposal is an admission of the reality. And so now we get to have a conversation.
Look. It’s great that Ezra Klein has finally written the definitive “Paul Ryan? Not great” piece in this year of our lord two thousand and eighteen, after a year of hinting that he had been taken for a ride by the GOP’s so-called “deficit hawks.” Is he a little (OK, very) late? Sure, but no one really needed his approval to understand that Ryan was dressing up Koch-style soulless libertarianism as technocratic wonkery.
The real question to ask is: What happens when the next Paul Ryan comes along? Because you know it’s going to happen. As the House Republican caucus grows more full of blithering idiots like Matt Gaetz and Clay Higgins and all of these people, that’s going to create even more opportunities for GOP backbenchers who can complete a full sentence to hoodwink liberal pundits into thinking they’re the second coming of Edmund Burke.
Hopefully those pundits can learn from our pal Ezra, and won’t be as willing as he was to take the bait.