Why I’m breaking up with Paul Ryan.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
I don’t want to see you anymore.
Two weeks ago, I declared my love for you. I said you would focus the election on fiscal responsibility. I envisioned you leading a movement of young people to control runaway spending.
My friends said I was crazy. They said you weren’t who I thought you were. Paul Krugman said you were a fake fiscal conservative. Scott Lemieux called you a standard-issue right-winger. Jim Surowiecki compared you to Barry Goldwater. I didn’t believe the naysayers. Sometimes they said you were too extreme. Sometimes they said you were a squishy hypocrite for supporting TARP and the auto bailout. It seemed like they just wanted to make you look bad one way or the other. I thought they were just playing politics.
I knew you weren’t perfect. I didn’t like your vote against the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan. I worried that your weakness for tax cuts would squander the savings from your budget cuts. But I should have studied your record more carefully. I didn’t understand how pivotal you were in sinking the budget deal between President Obama and Speaker Boehner. I paid too much attention to what you said about cutting the defense budget and not enough attention to what you did. You accused the military of requesting too little money—a concern that makes no sense to anyone familiar with the acquisitive habits of government agencies. You also objected to setting financial savings targets and forcing the Pentagon to meet them, even though that’s how you proposed to control domestic spending.
I tried to stand by you, Paul. I didn’t care that you grabbed federal money for your district. Every congressman does that. I gave you credit, not blame, for supporting TARP. I saw that vote as evidence that you, unlike many of your conservative colleagues, cared more about economic consequences than about making a statement. I winced every time you talked about your hard-line position on abortion, but I told my friends that voting records are misleading, that what a politician chooses to work on is more important, that social issues aren’t your thing, that your real interest is the budget. I even apologized for your dogmatism on climate change. I was willing to believe that you were skeptical of regulation but that you hadn’t really studied the science and that when you did, you’d come around. Jonah Goldberg poked fun at me for sometimes being so open-minded that my brains fall out. And you know what? (Drum roll, please ...) He’s right.
I hate to admit it, but Krugman nailed me on this one. I was looking for Mr. Right—a fact-based, sensible fiscal conservative—and I tried to shoehorn you into that role.
That’s where you let me down, Paul. Since Mitt Romney tapped you as his running mate, you haven’t stood for fiscal restraint. You’ve attacked it. You warned voters in North Carolina and Virginia that cuts in the defense budget would take away their tax-supported jobs. And I cringe when I recall what I said about you and Medicare. “Ryan destroys Romney’s ability to continue making the dishonest, anti-conservative argument that Obamacare is evil because it cuts Medicare,” I wrote. “Now Romney will have to defend the honest conservative argument, which is that Medicare spending should be controlled.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Four days after Romney put you on the ticket, you began parroting his Medicare shtick. You protested that Obama’s $700 billion savings in the future growth of Medicare payments to providers—a spending reduction that any sensible conservative president would have sought, and that you had previously included in your budget plan—would “lead to fewer services for seniors.” You depicted a horror scenario: “a $3,600 cut in benefits for current seniors. Nearly one out of six hospitals and nursing homes are going to go out of business.” You assured seniors that the Romney-Ryan agenda for Medicare “does not affect your benefits.” And you promised future retirees “guaranteed affordability” of health care.
In short, you adopted every tactic in the liberal playbook. You framed a reduced rate of growth as a draconian cut. You inflated the likely impact of the reduction. You denounced any loss of services as unacceptable. You promised not to touch seniors’ benefits. And you reaffirmed a fiscally unsustainable guarantee. By my count, you’ve now done this in at least six speeches and rallies. Every day, you’re reinforcing the culture of entitlement and making it harder to rein in retirement programs.
Oh, Paul. And I thought you were so rugged.
You even embraced the delusion that government is a threat to Medicare, when in fact government is the funder of Medicare. This misconception used to be a joke, an illustration of popular ignorance. But now you’re peddling it. “Mitt Romney and I are going to stop that raid on Medicare,” you told voters in New Hampshire a week ago. “We're going to restore this program, and we'll get these bureaucrats out of the way of standing between our senior citizens and their Medicare.”
I still see promise in you, Paul. I love it when you challenge the rhetoric of public “investment.” I admire your fixation on the Grim Reaper of debt. I’m sympathetic to your argument that student loans and insurance subsidies distort markets. I swoon when you crusade against the generational greed and fiscally hollow promises of the entitlement state. But if you won’t stand by your principles when it counts, Paul—if you’re just going to demagogue Medicare like an old-style liberal—then you’re useless to this country. I want my love letter back.
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Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.