The charts were brought into Paul Ryan's press conference in a handsome, chart-sized briefcase. They emerged, and they contained far more red (the color of debt) than blue (the color of George W. Bush's budgets). They represented the spending projections over the next 10 years as presented in Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2012 budget, projections that slowed their rate of increase but stayed high.
"It would be better doing nothing than it would be to pass this budget," said Ryan. He motioned toward his charts, and cameras started clicking.
"You can see that we have a tidal wave of debt," said Ryan, pointing to a chart titled "Tidal Wave of Debt." "The president's budget, as you can see right here, doubles the debt within five years of taking office and triples in 10 years."
This is true. The Obama budget—which Ryan described as "debt on arrival" in the Republican House—scales down the ambitious spending of the last two fiscal years. It cuts the deficit as a percentage of GDP from 10.9 percent to 7 percent, then to roughly 3 percent by the start of the next decade. Over 10 years, it cuts 1 percent of spending. It never balances the budget. It doesn't tackle entitlements.
"Anybody who knows anything about me knows we have to tackle entitlements or they're going to tackle us," said Ryan.
And then entitlements tackled him. Question after question came about whether Republicans would block the tidal wave by cutting entitlements. They, after all, are what make up most of the wave.
"I know everybody wants to get into 'what is our budget going to do, and how does it work,' " said Ryan. "We don't even have a baseline yet."
Another reporter rephrased the question.
"How many times are you going to keep asking me this?" he said. "I'm not going to commit to what's going to be in our budget, because we haven't written our budget." Today, he said, was about the president's budget.
Sure, Ryan was dodging the question. Today, he was allowed to dodge the question. There is a role for a Republican budget chairman who must write up the response to the president's numbers. In 1995, when John Kasich played the role, he criticized the budget that Democrats came up with, promised cuts, and delivered $1 trillion of them. They included a 20 percent cut to discretionary spending, cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and cutting up Medicaid funding into block grants.
Some of these are things that Republicans—and Ryan—still support. Today was not the time for him to talk about them. But practically every other Republican did talk about them, however abstractly. "The president missed an opportunity to lead today," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor when asked about entitlement reform today, "to try and address the biggest fiscal challenge we have. And so we are going to lead and include that in our budget … it is important to note who is leading and who is not."*
The definition of "leading," as of right now, does not include "being specific about what to do." What do Republicans want on entitlements? They will tell us later. Ryan avoided being nailed down on cuts by pointing out that the GOP would ask for the CBO to score the White House's budget, then start work on its own.
This, again, is something we've seen before. In 1995, Republicans took a dare and introduced steeper cuts than anything Democrats said they could possibly support. Democrats made them pay, portraying the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security reforms as daggers aimed right at the most vulnerable, most keen-to-vote-in-every-election Americans.
Democrats are putting on their 1995 Re-Enactment outfits and girding for war. Obama's budget does not cut Social Security, and it promises, toothlessly, "bipartisan talks on strengthening Social Security in the long term." In the short term, it increases funding for Social Security administration from $11.5 billion to $12.5 billion. Total outlays for the program increase from $804 billion in 2011 to $817 billion in 2012. This has almost no relationship to what the president has been saying about entitlements; it soothes some of the progressives who'd been convinced that he would pre-empt Republicans, wink at the Deficit Commission's proposals, and talk about cuts.
Oh, yes: What about the deficit commission? It had proposed new taxes and entitlement cuts; Ryan criticized Obama's budget for wimping out on the "significant" suggestions of the commission. I asked, as a way of teasing out his thoughts on entitlements, which of the deficit commission's bitter-tasting proposals he would have liked to have seen in the budget.
"Things that save money!" he said. "None of them are in here—[it's] $350 billion above nondiscretionary spending, none of the entitlement reforms that were proposed, none of the tax reforms that were proposed, none of the discretionary spending caps that were proposed."
There was at least one deficit commission proposal in the budget, though—there was a suggestion that Congress start eliminating corporate tax loopholes while lowering the overall rate. This is far less problematic for Democrats than any debate on entitlements. It's attractive to Republicans, too.
"People could have talked about a lot of stuff today," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who's convinced that tax reform is the one thing both parties might agree on if they try it. "They could have talked about defense issues or entitlements. But a lot of that stuff vanished into generalities. The tax-reform discussion is a lot easier to get traction with than the stuff Republicans were ducking today."
But this was just one day of generalities. This is what Republicans were expected to say. One awkward day of spin doesn't erase this fact: The Democrats have set up a fight on entitlements and Republicans haven't said no to it.
Also in Slate, John Dickerson suspects a better, secret budget deal may be in the works. Fred Kaplan lays out even more potential cuts to the Pentagon budget. Timothy Noah explains why the GOP favors such inconsequential discretionary cuts. Annie Lowrey describes how your household budget would look if you spent money like the federal government. Correction, Feb. 15, 2011: This article originally identified Eric Cantor as majority whip. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Feb. 15, 2011: This article originally identified Eric Cantor as majority whip. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)