The Smart Strategy Behind Paul Ryan's Stupid Budget

For an ambitious politician, a spot on your party's presidential ticket is fraught with danger. On one hand, you immediately become a national figure, and if you win, you're vice president and you've got a good chance to become president. On the other hand, if you lose, you may wind up the target of contempt from forces within your own party and quickly fade away. Look at the list of recent VP losers: Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp. None of them had any political future after their loss.

And then there's Paul Ryan. You have to give him credit for one thing. Unlike, say, Palin, he didn't let his time on the national stage give him delusions of grandeur. Instead of proclaiming himself the leader of a movement, he went right back to what he was doing before: using the budgeting process to push an extraordinarily radical agenda, all couched in enough numbers and figures to convince naive reporters that he's a Very Serious Fellow, despite the fact that his numbers and figures are about as serious as an episode of The Benny Hill Show. But this act is what got him where he is, and he seems to have concluded, probably wisely, that his best move is to get back on that same track, which might eventually lead him to the White House.

During an appearance on Fox News Sunday last weekend, Chris Wallace asked Ryan whether he'd like to be speaker of the House one day, and Ryan responded, "If I wanted to be in elected leadership like speaker, I would have run for these jobs years ago. I've always believed the better place for me is in policy leadership, like being a chairman." And he's absolutely right. These days, being a Republican Speaker is nothing but a hassle. For Ryan, the budget is both the vehicle of his (continued, he hopes) political rise and the means of radical ideological transformation. As Ezra Klein explains well, Ryan's budget, the latest iteration of which comes out today, is a blueprint for that ideological transformation, presented as nothing but a sober-minded effort to make "tough choices" and solve practical problems. It turns Medicare into a voucher plan, slashes spending on Medicaid and food stamps, repeals Obamacare, and cuts taxes for the wealthy. But it balances the budget! How? Well, partly by accepting the tax increases in the fiscal cliff deal (which Ryan opposed), and repealing only the benefits of Obamacare, like providing coverage to people, but keeping Obamacare's tax increases and Medicare savings (which, you'll remember, Ryan attacked relentlessly during last year's campaign as an unconscionable assault on our seniors). It brings to mind the old joke about an economist stuck in a pit who says he can get out of it easily. How? "Assume a ladder." Ryan's budget assumes that Republicans won the White House and both houses of Congress in 2012.

And why, you might ask, is this treated with any more seriousness than a press release put out by some numbskull backbench congressman? Because Paul Ryan is a wonk, making tough choices! If Ryan weren't so skilled at charming Washington reporters, and so shameless about the hypocrisy embedded in his plans, this kind of thing would be regarded not as some possibly questionable budget math, but as outright buffoonery, just a step or two above the Republicans who rush to the cameras whenever it snows to make lame jokes about how Al Gore is a stupid-head. But it isn't treated that way. It's treated the same way it was before Ryan became Mitt Romney's running mate, as more evidence of what an intellectual leader of the GOP Ryan is. Why mess with success?

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