Romney-Ryan and the Fallacy of Fiscally Conservative Republicans

Judge them by what they've done, or what they do in the future -- not by what they say they're going to do. paul ryan full.jpg

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Entitlements in America are generally associated with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Yet the laws those Democratic presidents signed are but part of the story. "The growth of entitlement spending over the past half-century has been distinctly greater under Republican administrations than Democratic ones," AEI demographer Nicholas Eberstadt explains in A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic. "Between 1960 and 2010, the growth of entitlement spending was exponential -- but in any given year, it was on the whole over 8 percent higher if the president happened to be a Republican rather than a Democrat .... The Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush administrations presided over especially lavish expansions."

The deficit has exploded under Republican presidents too.

So how has the GOP kept its reputation as the more fiscally responsible party? It's a triumph of rhetoric over results, and due in part to the fact that conservatives can anticipate the ways Democrats will disappoint them so much more clearly than they can anticipate Republican failures, which they underestimate. 

George Will is more inured than most to this pathology. So as a testament to its power, note that the pessimistic conservative columnist has persuaded himself on the eve of Election 2012 that Mitt Romney will govern as a fiscal conservative, despite being the one who drew my attention to that quote about Republican presidents doing more than Democrats to expand entitlements.

"Why, then, should we expect Romney to reverse Republican complicity?" Will asks. "Because by embracing Paul Ryan, Romney embraced Ryan's emphasis on the entitlement state's moral as well as financial costs."

But the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism has always been embraced by the GOP!

Consider this:

  • Mitt Romney has personally "embraced" a lot of policies he later disclaims or abandons.
  • The Republican Party has now run in successive elections against cutting Medicare.
  • Cutting entitlements is very unpopular, and Romney has showed very little political courage in his career.
  • Expanding entitlements is popular, and Romney is a serial panderer.

Answering all those factors by citing an embrace of Paul Ryan would be a lot more persuasive if Ryan himself hadn't amassed a record of opportunistically expanding entitlements when politically convenient.

As Daniel Larison put it:

This is the same Paul Ryan whose record is littered with votes in favor of every major Bush-era piece of legislation, including several that added significantly to the debt and one in particular that added trillions more to the government's unfunded liabilities. Ryan was complicit in the largest expansion of the welfare state in a generation when he voted for Medicare Part D, and it was done entirely at the expense of future generations. This is a perfect example of "piling up public debt that binds unconsenting future generations to finance current consumption."

When it comes to "mugging our descendants," the members of Congress responsible for passing Medicare Part D take first prize. If this degrades our political system, Ryan was on the side of degradation until very recently. Before he became a fiscal conservative hero in the last two years, Ryan was a typical Bush-era Republican with all of the considerable baggage that goes with it. The idea that we can trust a Romney administration to be better fiscal stewards than most of their Republican predecessors is to ignore everything we know about how Republicans typically act once in power. Assuming that Ryan's presence in that administration is some sort of guarantee of fiscal responsibility is simply the triumph of hope over experience.

Anything is possible, but Will would be wise to demand actual policy achievements from Republican officeholders before he assumes, based on their rhetoric, that they'll govern as fiscal conservatives. I can imagine a Romney Administration cutting Medicaid to pay for tax cuts. It is very difficult for me to believe that they're any more likely than President Obama to reform Medicare or to reduce entitlement spending on the sorts of people who make up their base of political support. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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