As we are all debating the significance of Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, the heretical Republican David Frum offers a very interesting perspective:
If the plan is not a real-world budget proposal, not an electioneering document, not a negotiating position — then what is it?
Answer: The Ryan plan is a Republican “memo to me” — an attempt by a party emerging from a troubled history to answer the question, “Who are we?” The answer is not aimed at the general public, but at Republicans themselves.
It goes like this: “Perhaps we used to be the people who introduced Medicare Part D. No longer. We have rediscovered our identity as the people who shrink government, not the people who expand it. Here is the proof.”
This “speaking to ourselves” mission explains many things about the plan that are otherwise puzzling.
■Why are there no revenue enhancements of any kind — not even fees or excise taxes that have no negative impact on incentives or savings?
■Why is Medicare protected in its existing form for a decade while the changes to Medicaid go into effect immediately?
■Why is Social Security exempted entirely?
■Why is agriculture treated so lightly — $30 billion in savings over 10 years, all of them (interestingly) to be decided by the Agriculture Committee, a unique concession by a Budget Committee otherwise determined to centralize decision-making?
Pose these questions and the answers become obvious:
These days, Americans over 55 vote heavily Republican. Under-55s lean Democratic, under-30s overwhelmingly so. (That’s the reverse, by the way, of the situation that prevailed as recently as the 1980s). Farmers vote Republican. Medicaid recipients do not. The deficit grows because the deficit reduction plan includes a big additional tax cut to upper-income taxpayers. And so on.
Frum’s characterization of the Ryan proposal as a reassurance of the GOP’s right-wing base is persuasive, but does leave a fairly obvious question: why do Republicans consider it necessary to share this “memo to me” with the rest of the country? You get the sense that hard-core conservatives will only trust the Republican Party if it makes its covenant marriage with the Right a matter of public record. But that public record won’t fare well when compared with the later argument that Republicans are mild-mannered folk who just want to rein in the excesses of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party.