Republicans face an uphill battle in selling their plan to the public and an impossible one in trying to pass it into law.
With the furor over outdated toys finally quieting down, it's a good time to revisit Paul Ryan's budget, released earlier this week. Wednesday night, the budget squeaked through the House Budget Committee, which sent it to the House overall. The Business Channel has covered some of the policy particulars of the plan, but here are a few of the most important political angles.
1. Why can't anyone say no to Paul Ryan? One reason for the muted response to the plan is that we've seen this movie before, in a slightly different cut. Ryan's proposal is very similar to the plan he proposed last year: It adopts a similar method for cutting Medicare expenditures and maintains a similar timeline for reducing the deficit. And as you may recall, last year's budget was a political fiasco. President Obama slammed the plan (with Ryan looking on, annoyed), Democrats accused the GOP of backing policies that would hurt seniors, and a Republican lost a special election in New York that became a referendum on Ryan's Medicare plan.
Why the repeat? Jake Sherman has an excellent, deeply reported story in Politico Thursday on the process. It's true that the party planned better, testing its message with key constituencies and trying to anticipate the likely attacks. On the other hand, here's how Sherman sums this year's strategy up: "The 2012 plan is -- simply put -- to not talk about the plan too much."
You can see why many Republicans aren't feeling great. Chris Cillizza rounded up some GOP strategists whose reactions ranged from dyspeptic to disconsolate. Here's another reaction:
GOP staffer emails: "The GOP budget is a great tool to further divide our caucus & provide fodder for Dem attack ads. Thank you Paul Ryan."— Molly Ball (@mollyesque) March 20, 2012
The problem is that no one seems to know how to tell Ryan no. The GOP has branded him as their policy genius, a budget wonk par excellence. Now they can't help go back: regardless of what he proposes, they have to go with it. Because Ryan believes strongly in his approach and seems to have little ambition for higher office, his party is stuck riding shotgun in whatever vehicle he chooses.
2. Can conservatives close ranks around the plan? Watch for members of the GOP caucus, and the conservative coalition overall, to try to tuck and roll out of the moving car. The House majority has been famously fractious, repeatedly rebelling against Speaker John Boehner. There are already signs of trouble. Two Republicans dissented during the committee vote Wednesday night -- because they felt the budget wasn't austere enough. The influential Club for Growth attacked the plan on similar grounds. The more moderate and electorally vulnerable wings of the party are nervous, too. For example, Rep. Denny Rehberg, who's headed into a very tight Senate election in November, is pointedly withholding judgment. And the party's defense-hawk wing is likely to take issue with the massive cuts to defense spending that the plan would institute. If past experience is a guide, the GOP leadership will eventually wrangle a majority to pass the plan, but only after a damaging circus. Fortunately for them, Majority Leader Eric Cantor -- who has sometimes undermined Boehner -- is on board with the Ryan plan.
3. Why did Republicans even bother? Even then, there's little chance the plan will pass the Senate, much less get signed into law by Obama. Why did they even take the risk? It's a matter both of principle and of having boxed themselves in. On the one hand, fiscal conservatives (in both parties) object to the practice of funding the government with continuing resolutions rather than real annual budgets. On the other hand, because the budgets sets spending at a lower level than the cap Democrats and Republicans agreed to last year, there's basically no chance this budget will get passed before the fall elections: think about how fierce the battle over cuts was before, then imagine where Congress will find another $19 billion to cut closer to the bone in an election year. Even if principle didn't hold, the GOP has boxed itself in by making an issue of Senate Democrats' remarkable failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days (they say that's because they know it wouldn't pass the House, but it's also a strategic move: they'd rather not commit to anything if they don't have to). It seems like Republicans may have been outmaneuvered. It's tough to make hay with the lack of a Democratic budget (after all, there's no there there), whereas with the proposed Ryan budget, Democrats have a bludgeon, however hyperbolic ("Republicans want to pull the plug on granny!").
4. How will Democrats focus their attack? The Obama Administration seems to believe the debt-reduction fight is over and no one cares anymore; the president barely mentioned it in his State of the Union speech. So Democrats see this as all upside: Do they attack the Ryan plan for being a handout to the wealthy, given that inequality has become a major topic of discussion, or do they stick with the formula that Republicans are gutting Medicare, a proven winner? If Republicans can turn deficit reduction back into a popular mantra, however, Democrats will be forced to play defense.
5. How will the budget play in the presidential election? Ryan's last plan sewed chaos among Republican contenders (remember Newt Gingrich's "right-wing social engineering" misstep?). Romney, then trying to prove his conservative bona fides, endorsed the plan. He's done it again, saying, "I'm very supportive of the Ryan budget plan. It's a bold and exciting effort on his part and on the part of the Republicans and it's very much consistent with what I put out earlier." Right on cue, Daily Kos has started referring to the "Ryan-Romney budget plan." For better or for worse, Romney now owns this plan.