Two products made their debuts in Congress on Tuesday. The first was "The Path to Prosperity," House Republicans' budget resolution for the next fiscal year. The second was the budget's author: Honest Paul.
Honest Paul is the heroic persona of Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee. He's like the regular Paul Ryan, except he must pause regularly to accept plaudits for his candor, heroism, and courage. This persona had been in beta-testing for several years, at least since the Weekly Standard profiled him as one of the GOP's rising stars in October 2007 (headline: "The Thinker"). Honest Paul got a good, long trial run in 2010, when Ryan introduced—after plenty of Democratic goading—the budget-cutting "Roadmap for America's Future." The trial run was a success, because for all of the bashing Democrats and liberal-leaning think-tankers did, it didn't stop the Republicans from taking the House.
And so Tuesday belonged to Honest Paul. David Brooks wrote a column praising Ryan for "the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes." When Ryan appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," he was interrupted several times to accept more praise. "Let us stop right now and commend him," said host Joe Scarborough, who served with Ryan in the House from 1999 to 2001. "He's in a leadership position," said New York Times financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin. "He's come out with a plan, which is more than the Democrats can say."
The plaudits followed Ryan wherever he went. After the MSNBC appearance, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Paul was flanked by 16 members of his committee and his Republican peer in the Senate, Jeff Sessions. "In the face of all kinds of threats," said Sessions, "you have looked the American people in the eye and released a fact-based budget that will stand up to scrutiny."
After the presser, Ryan jumped on the phone to talk to Glenn Beck and assure Beck's listeners that they could count on him to win the budget wars.
"What will shut these union revolutionaries down?" asked Beck.
"Ultimately, we've got to win elections," said Ryan, diplomatically. "With this budget we're giving the country the debate we deserve to have."
Ryan jumped off the phone and into the American Enterprise Institute to give another speech on the Path. He was introduced by AEI's president, Arthur Brooks, who reminded the crowd that "a budget is a moral document" and that Ryan, making his second AEI appearance since the midterm election, was doing "courageous work."
There are two reasons Ryan is attracting so much praise and so much of the focus today was on Ryan. One: He's courted it. He walked into punches with the 2010 roadmap. Last month he invited TV cameras to watch one of his 15-odd briefings with Republicans, where he sold them on his budget proposal. His pitch to them was hardly different than his pitch to reporters today. He even used the same "tidal wave of debt" illustration, in which entitlement spending becomes a murderous red flood as the baby boomers slip into retirement.
Two: Everybody thinks it's in his or her best interest if Ryan's budget proposal, and Ryan in particular, captivate Washington. It's good for Republicans because they get to shift the Overton Window yet again—they've been doing quite a lot of this—and start a discussion about privatizing Medicare and turning Medicaid payments over to states in the form of block grants. In the space of a couple days, these have gone from the desks of AEI and Heritage researchers and onto, well, "Morning Joe."
It's good for Democrats (they think) because they have an unbroken record of ripping Republicans apart whenever there's a chance that Medicare or Medicaid could be cut. That was the basis of the 1995-96 shutdown, when the GOP's budget included a more modest reform than Ryan's. That was the basis of the 2005 counterstrike on the newly re-elected George W. Bush, who spent six months campaigning for private Social Security accounts and got exactly no Democratic support.
And that, on Tuesday, was how this played out. Ryan warned reporters that he'd be criticized for being so bold. "Is this a political weapon?" he asked at AEI. "Of course it is." Ryan was at his most animated when shadowboxing with Democrats who'd respond to his courage with "politics." A reporter in AEI's audience read out a statement from Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., in which Israel warned of a future where senior citizens clipped coupons to pay for health care. Ryan tore into the straw man with vigor.
"You have to say things like that, which are distortions and demagoguery, in order to score political points," said Ryan. "You know, shame on them." The audience—a mixture of reporters and extremely happy activists—burst into applause at Ryan's speedy rhetorical dragon-slay.
But that was easy. Ryan's budget proposal does go after entitlements in a way that no Democratic budget, and none of George W. Bush's budgets, ever has. It's not nearly as bold about attacking Republican shibboleths. Actually, it's timid when it comes to all of that. At the morning presser, Ryan was asked why he incorporated so many of the take-your-medicine suggestions of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission but didn't take their advice on tax increases. Ryan responded with a koan that was half zen and half Art Laffer.
"When you tax something more, you get less of it," he said. "When you tax something less, you get more of it."
That's not true. Tax receipts nearly doubled during Bill Clinton's presidency, when income and corporate taxes were raised to levels that no Republican wants to return to. They increased in the Bush years, but not as much as analysts—such as the ones at the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis, which crunched Ryan's numbers—had predicted. And Ryan proposes cuts in the top marginal income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.
What does that do for the deficit? The Congressional Budget Office compared the projections for the status quo and the Ryan budget over 10-year, 18-year, 28-year, and 38-year windows. The "extended baseline scenario"—the status quo, with the Bush tax cuts expiring—produces a deficit of 2.75 percent of GDP in 2022. The Ryan scenario produces a deficit of 2 percent of GDP. Yet overall debt, according to the CBO, would be higher than if Ryan's budget weren't adopted. It's only when we get to 2040 and on that the deficit vanishes. That's largely because of the entitlement privatization in the budget, and because of the split-the-baby plan used to make it palatable, where only people born after 1957 or 1958 will participate in the new system.
Figures like this are going to get pulled out and teased out in the coming days. But we know what the first lasting development from the budget's launch will be. It's the arrival of Honest Paul, as the accountant and the spokesman who is very, very ready to be the pivotal figure here.
"It is not a budget," Ryan said on Tuesday. "It is a cause."