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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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution