Ryan's Plan Puts Republican Presidential Hopefuls in a Tough Spot

The GOP budget proposal would end Medicare, but fiscal hawks will attack anyone who opposes it. What's a White House hopeful to do?

Paul Ryan plan with Cantor - AP Photo:Carolyn Kaster - banner.jpg

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan introduced his 2012 budget plan at a press conference Tuesay. credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Caster

With its big-dollar numbers and radical program changes, the budget proposal released Tuesday by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is daring policy-making of the highest order, but it is as a political document that Ryan's budget might have its most far-reaching implications.

"It is not a political document," insisted Ed Rollins, a GOP consultant. "It is not something as a political strategist I would draft for my candidate to run on."

Nowhere are the reforms more radical than on Medicare, and already the field of prospective Republican presidential candidates is walking a political tightrope in reaction to Ryan's sweeping proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher-based system for people younger than 55.

Their dilemma is this: Opposition to the Ryan proposal, or even a show of only qualified support, exposes them to charges from the right wing that they are not sufficiently committed to spending-cuts and deficit-reduction, which is now the heart of Republican orthodoxy.

However, if a candidate fully embraced Ryan's proposed entitlement change, he or she risks angering and alienating seniors, a critical part of the GOP's successful 2010 coalition that reclaimed control of the House. Either way, a clear position on the Medicare reform proposal in 2011 could sink them and the party's chances in 2012.

To walk that line, the race's front-runners on Tuesday carved out responses that heaped praise on Ryan, supported his budget in principle, but didn't tie themselves to his plan to change Medicare.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty complimented Ryan for "offering real leadership" but didn't specifically endorse the budget's provisions. Most of his statement, in fact, reiterated his opposition to raising the debt ceiling next month.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, used a similar tack, issuing a statement "applauding" Ryan for addressing the country's "financial crisis."

"He is setting the right tone for finally getting spending and entitlements under control," said Romney. "Anyone who has read my book knows that we are on the same page."

In his book, Romney mentions offering seniors a "credit" to buy insurance as one of several proposals to reduce Medicare costs, but the proposal was couched as a suggestion, not a requirement.

The written remarks were similar to those given by former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Palin voiced support for Ryan's budget "roadmap," the precursor to his budget, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published late last year, and Huckabee offered support for a voucher system in his latest book. Huckabee released the following statement on Tuesday about the Ryan plan: "It's doubtful the House's proposal will be passed in its current form, and it's unlikely that this one proposal will be the ultimate solution to all of our economic problems. But Congressman Ryan's proposal is certainly a start--one that I support as a small step to restoring fiscal sanity and reducing the size of government."

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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