It was in these words that New York Times described not the political ascendency of Paul Ryan, but rather of his political doppelganger, David Stockman, thirty years ago.
David Stockman was the Paul Ryan of the Reagan era, and the similarities are uncanny. A rising conservative star whose southwestern Michigan district was just across the lake from Ryan's, David Stockman was a 34-year-old Congressman who was famous for his mastery of the arcane details of the Federal budget. When Ronald Reagan selected him to be the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, it was a pivotal appointment, as the central question facing the Reagan Revolution--from old line Republicans as well as Democrats--was whether Reagan could cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget, all at once.
Stockman believed that it could be done, or as he said at the time, "The whole thing is premised on faith. On a belief in how the world works."
And the rest is history. The Reagan administration transformed Washington.
Stockman did not succeed in balancing the budget. But unlike revisionist defenders of the Reagan era, he did not blame it on the duplicity of Tip O'Neill and the Democrats, but rather on the perfidy of fellow Republicans. What was birthed in that era was--in the words of fellow Republican apostate Pete Peterson--the unholy alliance of tax cutting Republicans and big spending Republicans. Together, they untethered the Grand Old Party from its roots as the party of frugality and prudence, and embraced the singular legacy of the Reagan era--the realization that balanced budgets were no longer either a political or economic imperative.
And this perfidy lies at the core of Paul Ryan's much vaunted Roadmap for America's Future. For all the claims to being a document of budget wizardry, the Roadmap offers little policy insight beyond its fundamental, and unarguable, stipulation: We cannot continue to borrow forever. Beyond that, the Roadmap offers little more than an assertion of the author's own political imperative--in this case capping spending at 19% of GDP--and assuming that Congress in future years will agree to curb spending in excess of that cap.
I published the graph below several months ago in a post about the Obama-Boehner negotiations. The graph incidentally makes the same simple point as the Roadmap: "If Federal spending were to be capped at its pre-financial crisis average since the mid-1970s of 20.8% of GDP, five categories of spending--Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Defense and Net Interest--will steadily squeeze out all other areas of entitlement and discretionary spending. By 2022, Everything Else is reduced 57% from its historical average of 6.4% of GDP to 2.7% of GDP."
This is not a great insight. It is simply a product of understanding budget numbers at the most rudimentary level and having some facility with Excel. And yet this is the basic insight of Paul Ryan's plan. Ryan does not say what he proposes to cut--beyond proposed cost shifting of healthcare costs to beneficiaries--indeed he barely discusses non-entitlement, non-defense spending. Instead, he simply asserts that if there were a hard spending cap, that would force drastic--but undefined--reductions to stay within aggregate spending limits.
While conservatives heap adulation upon the Ryan as a thinker, David Stockman is not fooled. He understands that Ryan's document demonstrates neither budgetary insight nor political courage. Writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times last week, Stockman assaulted Ryan's plan:
Thirty years of Republican apostasy--a once grand party's embrace of the welfare state, the warfare state and the Wall Street-coddling bailout state--have crippled the engines of capitalism and buried us in debt. Mr. Ryan's sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to 'job creators' (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation's economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse...
But the greater hypocrisy is his phony "plan" to solve the entitlements mess by deferring changes to social insurance by at least a decade.
A true agenda to reform the welfare state would require a sweeping, income-based eligibility test, which would reduce or eliminate social insurance benefits for millions of affluent retirees. Without it, there is no math that can avoid giant tax increases or vast new borrowing. Yet the supposedly courageous Ryan plan would not cut one dime over the next decade from the $1.3 trillion-per-year cost of Social Security and Medicare.
The sophistry of the plan rests in the simplistic assumptions it makes about the ability of Congress to designate cuts now for future years, as well as the assumption Republicans are not in fact big supporters of large swaths of the discretionary budget the Ryan presumes to simply assume that Congress will eliminate in future years. Indeed, Ryan's plan does not address how the fundamental question of how the budget would be balanced until the last few pages of his opus, this despite the presumptions that the existential threat to the nation is presumed to be the Roadmap's raison d'etre.
But that is the crux of the budgetary challenge, not a sideshow. What Ryan ultimately offers is nothing more than a repeat of the now decades-old idea of legislating hard spending caps. This is the same approach that failed with the brief experiment with the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law. It failed in a different incarnation as Paygo rules. And it has failed again in the form of the 10-year scoring rules that are the reason the Bush tax cuts were supposed to have expired several years ago.
The problem, in its essence, is that Congress does not actually have power to impose cuts on the future, as any rule one Congress makes to control spending, the next Congress can undo. This is the essential dilemma that has underscored our budgetary politics since the political and economic imperative of balanced budgets was overturned in the wake of the Reagan revolution--only Congress can restrain itself, and if it doesn't want to, it won't.
What Stockman and Peterson understand is that for all of the hubris of conservatives in Congress, they are no different than their political brethren across the political spectrum. In fact, they have proved to be worse. They hold forth on the immorality of deficits and the path to ruin that lies ahead, but it is all just words--words that mask a deep hypocrisy and cynicism. And when David Stockman looks at the Ryan plan, and the fawning support of the conservative establishment in Washington, he cannot conceal his contempt.
That about sums it up.