Romney, Ryan, and Etch-a-Sketch

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JONATHAN COHN MARCH 22, 2012

Romney, Ryan, and Etch-a-Sketch

One irony of Eric Fehrnstrom’s “etch-a-sketch” comment, suggesting that Mitt Romney was all set to remake himself as a moderate, is that it came on the same day that Romney embraced the new Paul Ryan budget – a radically conservative plan that, if enacted, would take health insurance from tens of millions of people while effectively ending the federal government except for entitlements and defense spending.

Of course, Romney has spoken up for Ryan and his proposals before: Either directly or through surrogates, he embraced the original Ryan budget, from 2011. That budget called for transforming Medicare into a voucher system, then reducing its funding to the point where the typical senior, by 2022, would be individually responsible for about two-thirds of his or her medical costs.

The new Ryan budget doesn’t threaten Medicare as directly or grievously: In theory, it retains traditional Medicare as an option for seniors who want to stay in the government insurance plan. And it would reduce the program’s funding much less severely than the previous Ryan plan did. But Ryan’s new budget retains the essential vision: The government would give seniors a voucher, with pre-determined value, ending the program’s fundamental guarantee of benefits and potentially putting comprehensive insurance (including the government-run program) out of financial reach.

Still, the real danger is what the Ryan budget would do other federal programs, starting with Medicaid. Many of this raised a fuss about this on Tuesday and Wednesday, after Ryan first unveiled the proposal. But now the plan looks even worse than it did at first blush. Ryan has called for reducing “discretionary” spending to less than 4 percent of gross domestic product by 2050. (Discretionary spending is spending that Congress must authorize and then re-authorize on a regular basis.) And nearly most of that would go to defense. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out, that leaves less than 1 percent for everything else, meaning “Nothing for border patrol. Nothing for the FDA, FAA, or FBI. Nothing for research and development. Nothing, even, to pay people to work in government!”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has done its typically thorough job of dissecting the proposal, discovered something else on Thursday: The Ryan budget calls for a $1.9 trillion in cut in “other mandatory” spending. (Mandatory spending is for programs, like Social Security, whose funding rises or falls automatically, based on who’s eligible for them and what they need, unless Congress decides to alter the programs.) The result would be deep cuts to programs that benefits the most vulnerable people in society, from school lunches and food stamps to funding for foster families and people with disabilities. States could make up some of this funding, obviously, but not nearly enough, no matter how efficient they may (or may not) be.

The Ryan budget also calls for tax cuts that would benefit the wealthy disproportionately, leading the Center’s president, Robert Greenstein to say the following:

This budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history). 

This is the vision for American government that Romney has embraced. Maybe he doesn't really believe in it, but that doesn't matter. His willingness to defend it  — at a time when, as Greg Sargent points out, we’re having a grand national debate about governing priorities — reveals a great deal about his values. And that image won't be easy to erase.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, eric fehrnstrom, paul ryan, robert greenstein, medicare

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