The political impossibility of the Ryan-Romney budget

You are better off believing in the tooth fairy than the Republican pair's economic strategy.

Pain has no political constituency.

This fundamental rule of American politics (and democratic systems more generally) points up the difficulty of enacting or sustaining public policies that leave large numbers of citizens worse off. Politicians dread casting votes on legislation that will impose costs on any significant group of constituents, lest the opposition seize on the issue in the next election. Austerity policies typically spell defeat for the political party or coalition that imposes them (see Greece). Given the political consequences of inflicting pain, many of the key budget prescriptions embodied in the budget plan developed by Representative Paul Ryan and now effectively endorsed by Mitt Romney will never be realized in practice.

Political parties that run on a “cod liver oil” platform face a critical obstacle on the campaign trail. They can always be undersold in the competition for votes by other parties that offer voters instead the proverbial spoonful of sugar. The political challenge entailed by recommending policies that promise pain becomes more acute if the danger that the pain is designed to avert lies far off in the future.

In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale vividly demonstrated the lesson that pain is a losing political proposition. He believed that the American people would accept the hard truth that tax increases were the only solution to the large federal deficit generated by the tax cuts pushed through by the Reagan administration. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he delivered the bad news directly:

“Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan’s bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up….Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale’s candor earned him no credit among the American people. With barely 40 per cent of the popular vote, he lost 49 states. (If Reagan had decided to campaign in Minnesota, Mondale’s home state, the Democrat might have lost all fifty.)

Another episode from the Reagan era demonstrates a more palatable approach to allocating pain. In 1981, recognizing that Social Security would soon face a short-term funding shortfall, Reagan appointed a bipartisan group, the National Commission on Social Security Reform (called the Greenspan Commission after its chair, Alan Greenspan) to review the program and its finances. The commission recommended a series of changes that included increased taxes and reduced benefits. Congress in 1983 approved recommendations that yielded $168bn to assure that the program would remain solvent. The solution set borrowed from both parties, including increasing in the retirement age and raising the payroll tax ceiling on higher income workers. Importantly, the commission gave both parties political cover, and the bipartisan support effectively removed the issue from the 1984 campaign.

But the conditions that made possible the 1983 compromise have proven harder to replicate over time. Barack Obama sought to lay the groundwork for a similar bipartisan approach when he appointed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (usually referred to after its co-chairs as Simpson-Bowles). Rather than embrace the report, however, lawmakers in both parties shunned it. Among the obstacles were a more sharply polarized political context and the lack of urgency inherent in the underlying problem. Any long-term debt crisis involves a distant threat, quite unlike the immediate problems facing Social Security in the early 1980s.

If we apply the lessons from these episodes to the Ryan budget, certain conclusions follow. First, so long as the Democrats control one of the main policy branches of the national government (the White House, the Senate, or the House), the plan will go nowhere. Indeed, that is the best of all worlds for the GOP, because then Republicans don’t have to answer for the consequences. Second, were the Republicans to sweep the 2012 elections, they might enact the features of the plan attractive to their core constituents — cutting discretionary expenditures for the poor and lowering taxes. The result would be a larger federal deficit and a worsening of the future debt problem. Third, Republican lawmakers would likely defer proposed changes in Medicare and changes in the tax code (such as eliminating popular deductions) intended to offset tax cuts. These unpopular moves would leave them politically vulnerable in 2014. To enact them could spell a quick farewell to majority status for the GOP.

Republicans know this. Many are already scared to run on the Ryan scheme to replace traditional Medicare for those under the age of 55 with vouchers that cannot possibly cover the same level of services. That Medicare poses a danger to the federal government’s solvency as baby boomers retire may be true, but proposing to slash Medicare spending still makes for bad politics. (And the Republican ticket appreciates the politics, too, witness the Romney-Ryan attack on Obamacare for allegedly cutting Medicare.) Nor will the Republicans’ Orwellian efforts to package the reform as a plan to protect and enhance Medicare work. In a contested information environment, efforts to reframe the terms of debate don’t work.

The same holds for the unspecified revenue increases that the Ryan plan expects to realize from reforming the tax code. At a time when the federal government already takes in much less than it spends, the GOP budget formula seeks lower tax rates and an end to taxes on capital gains. The plan in its pure form offers more than $4trn in tax cuts over the next decade. Finding the revenue to offset such a loss runs afoul of political reality at every turn. End the home mortgage interest deduction? The one for state and local taxes? How about putting a stop to charitable deductions? These moves amount to political suicide. Yet nothing less could close the gap between revenues and expenditures entailed by the Ryan budget (or the Romney tax plan proposed during the primaries).

In the end, then, the politics of pain mean that anything resembling the Ryan-Romney budget approach will become another exercise in supply-side economics — the discredited faith that cutting taxes sharply enough will generate so much economic growth that total revenues will increase. The Republicans can deliver the tax cuts and some spending reductions targeted at the most vulnerable, who are also the least organized and powerful in our politics. But for those who think the Ryan budget represents a serious approach to the long-term federal debt problem, believing in the tooth fairy is a better bet.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. This post originally appeared on the OUP blog here.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan arrive at a campaign rally in Powell, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War.

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle