Why Paul Ryan’s Balanced Budget Message Falls Flat

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 12 2013 6:11 PM

The Paul Ryan Promise

Republicans love the sound of a balanced budget. But it’s not as powerful a message as they think.

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Ponnuru should know; he was one of the speakers at that retreat. He’s happy with much of the new Ryan budget—“it’s great that they’re still standing for Medicare premium support”—but wonders whether they focused on the wrong numbers. Why be so specific about when the budget will balance, but not about how? The Ryan plan collapses the tax code into two “pro-growth” rates, 10 percent and 25 percent, with no change to expected revenue. At today’s press conference, Ryan was asked whether he’d get those numbers by closing loopholes that middle-income people crave—the mortgage tax deduction, for example. Ryan said that the Ways and Means Committee would hold hearings to figure this out, but it might be painless. “You can actually plug loopholes and subject more of a higher-earner’s income to taxes with a lower tax rate,” he said.

Why leave it so vague? “I don’t think there’s good argument for being specific about the rates and unspecific about the tax base,” says Ponnuru. “They’ve left themselves open to the argument that they are delivering a specific valuable promise to rich people. If you’re making $2 million, and your top rate falls from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, you’re going to be saving a lot of money.”

And this is how Democrats have always defeated the “balanced budget” cause. In 1995, when a balanced budget amendment was close to victory in the Senate, Democrats warned that mandatory balance would mean biting hard into Social Security. In 2013, a new Senate Republican version of the BBA has been introduced, and forgotten. Republican strategists admit that “balanced budgets” are a “70 percent issue”—supermajority support when voters hear about them—but that the details of possible cuts remain horrifically unpopular. Republicans who aren’t yoked to the party’s daily messaging don’t see the benefit of making sure every idea has a nice CBO score.

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“What I would have advised to Romney, if Romney won, was something that immediately helped the economy,” says Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. “I’d pass one bill that cuts the corporate income tax rate in half. I would have started there. I wouldn’t have worried about whether it was revenue neutral, or what anyone says.”

And Democrats don’t sound worried about their “unbalanced” budget. I asked Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who’s up for re-election next year, whether he was comfortable with a budget that didn’t balance buy a certain date. “I don’t worry about those things,” he said. “We’re working towards a balanced budget.” Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent elected last year, made the same distinction. “The important thing is we’re on a sustainable path toward a balanced budget,” he said, “while at the same time not crippling the economy.”

King has slain the “unbalanced” dragon before. When he ran for Senate, Republican-aligned groups attacked him for his record as governor from 1995 to 2003. “When King left office,” warned the narrator in one Chamber of Commerce ad, “he left Maine with a $1 billion budget shortfall.” None of this stopped King from winning a three-way race, by 22 points. The Balanced Budget God, so compelling to Republican voters, isn’t so compelling for anyone else.

“Republicans are missing the vast majority of the American electorate,” says Kellyanne Conway, a pollster who spoke at the GOP retreat. “They’re not job seekers. They’re not job creators. They’re job holders. Focus on them.”

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