Matt Miller - The Archives
Paul Ryan is not what you think
The Washington Post, January 25, 2011

Imagine that President Obama said Tuesday night that it was time to get America's fiscal house in order and then proposed a plan that would not balance the budget until the 2060s—while adding more than $62 trillion to the national debt between now and then. Can anyone imagine Republicans hailing Obama as a "visionary fiscal conservative"? The idea is absurd.

But Republicans do hail House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as a "visionary fiscal conservative," even though it is Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" that I've described (using cautious assumptions) above. Now that Ryan, with his State of the Union response, is becoming his party's most visible spokesman on fiscal matters, it's vital to grasp how huge the gap is between the rhetoric surrounding Ryan's plan and its reality.

Ryan's "Roadmap" (which includes a number of ideas I support, by the way) purports to address the fiscal challenges of our aging population while restoring a culture of self-reliance rather than dependency on government. Yet while liberals have been busy blasting Ryan's proposed trims to Social Security and Medicare, the bigger budget outcomes Ryan proposes have been virtually ignored. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Ryan's plan would result in annual deficits of between 3.5 and 4.5 percent of GDP between now and somewhere after 2040, with a balanced budget coming only around 2063. This would add at least $62 trillion to the national debt over the period. (My estimate is conservative mostly because the independent Tax Policy Center says Ryan's tax reforms would produce far less revenue than Ryan required the CBO to assume.)

Ryan doesn't dispute these basic facts (though I believe this is the first time his actual debt numbers have been called out). When I asked him at a recent National Press Club event how he could put out a plan that didn't balance the budget for decades and added trillions to the debt, and still call himself a "fiscal conservative," he offered an evasive digression on how this just shows how tough the demographic challenge is. But it really shows something different: that you can't double the number of seniors on Social Security and Medicare and keep taxes at their recent long-run average of 19 percent of GDP, as Ryan's plan would do. Even after assuming entitlement reforms that most Republicans think would be politically fatal, Ryan's red ink never stops flowing.

Understood properly, Ryan's debt-soaked "Roadmap" is not the threat liberals perceive but instead fresh proof of the inevitability of higher taxes as the boomers age. If Ryan publicly accepts this reality in his new leadership role, he'll hasten bipartisan progress toward budget fixes that blend long-term spending reductions with tax increases. If he denies it—well, then, sorry, Paul, you'll just have to live with being the $62 trillion man.