Paul Ryan Is Not the Problem

Conservatives seem to have identified Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as the new scapegoat for frustration at the GOP’s apparent stumbles in the fiscal battle in Washington, DC. In the space of a year or so, Ryan has gone from being celebrated as the bold fiscal hawk who gave conservative legitimacy to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to being denounced as the latest RINO willing to sell out his principles for Wall Street or K Street.

The current accusations against Ryan are contradictory. My colleague Matt Boyle reported last week that Ryan “attempted to decouple the debt ceiling battle from the CR battle against Obamacare.” Over at RedState, Erick Erickson said: “Republican Leaders are begging us to merge the continuing resolution fight and debt ceiling fight.” Which is true, I do not know. But the common fear is that Ryan et al. will let Obamacare stand as-is.

Ryan evoked that suspicion by leaving the word “Obamacare” out of his Wall Street Journal op-ed last week (though he did call for “a complete rethinking of government’s approach to health care”). I do not know if that was a deliberate omission, but regardless, it provided an opportunity for conservative critics to pounce. I tend to think the real issue, for some, was not that Ryan left out “Obamacare,” but that he offered a plan at all. 

Here is the problem with which we conservatives have not quite reckoned. Every single member of the U.S. Congress, in both houses, was elected to govern. Of course, the Republican majority in the House was given a mandate in 2010 to oppose Obamacare. But unlike the British parliamentary system, our system does not enshrine opposition as an institution. Even the minority party is charged with some governing responsibility.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has given new strength and coherence to the opposition cause. His tough stand against Obamacare was, in my view, both strategically and tactically astute. Ryan took a similar stand in 2010 when he fought for changes in the entitlement system, and dissented from the Bowles-Simpson commission’s plan because it funded Obamacare over the long term. That took courage then, as Cruz’s stand took courage today.

Yet Ryan also chairs the House Budget Committee. In that capacity, he has a responsibility to govern. And he has carried out that responsibility, on issue after issue, by trying to find the most conservative policy that has a chance of passing the Democratic Senate. I have often disagreed with parts of his approach. On immigration, for example, I believe he made a mistake by working with Chicago’s radical Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL).

In the present fiscal impasse, I do think Ryan could have been clearer about his opposition to Obamacare, and that he should have taken his plan to the conservative new media before the Journal‘s op-ed page–which, though conservative, has steadfastly opposed Cruz’s strategy. I do not think it was wrong, however, for him to present a plan. It was the right time to do so. It could have increased the leverage of the anti-Obamacare push.

Members of the Republican “establishment,” for lack of a better term, have argued that there is no use trying to stop Obamacare–that doing so requires that we wait for victories in 2014 and 2016. That is a Plan B at best. But the alternative posed by some voices for the “grass-roots,” which is that Republicans should simply stand in opposition until Obama leaves office, is equally unrealistic and places members of Congress in a tough spot.

Our constitutional system requires that elected representatives in a divided government navigate between governing and opposing. If it is fair to ask Rep. Ryan why he was not more adamant about his opposition to Obamacare in his Journal op-ed, it is certainly also fair to ask Sen. Cruz to justify his opposition to passing a budget earlier in 2013, once the Democrat-controlled Senate finally mustered the courage to offer one.

In the late 1990s, it was fashionable to argue that Americans hated politics because the two parties agreed on everything. Today, it is fashionable to despair because each party opposes everything the other does. What we have often lacked, then and now, was leadership that could strike an appropriate balance between governing and opposing. Paul Ryan is trying to do that. He is not immune from criticism. But he is not the problem. 

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