Paul Ryan’s moment: Political currents pull Republican to the fore

Jon Ward Contributor
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Read a transcript of The Daily Caller’s interview with Ryan here.

An unusual thing happened as President Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag, spoke Sunday evening about the White House budget proposal being unveiled on Monday.

Orszag, touching on the country’s long-term fiscal instability and its connection to health-care costs, raised a Republican lawmaker’s idea on how to fix the problem. The mention of Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, was completely unilateral by Orszag, without any prompting.

“I would note on this point that there have been alternative proposals put forward. For example, Representative Ryan has come forward with a proposal that does restore long term balance to the federal budget,” Orszag said.

He did it again, again of his own accord, during an interview with Bloomberg TV Monday morning at the White House.

“Republicans have put forward ideas. Rep. Ryan … has a plan for the future of the budget. That’s great,” Orszag said.

On the conference call Sunday, Orszag said that under Ryan’s plan, which moves Medicare recipients 55 and younger into a system where they get direct payment vouchers instead of government payment for each medical visit or procedure, the “voucher would not keep pace with ongoing health-care costs.”

Orszag called the plan “one approach” but said it “may not be the one that the American public favors.”

When Ryan’s name came up yet again at a Monday press conference, Orszag said his plan, while “impressive,” is “a dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals.”

The fact that Orszag would even mention the Republican plan, however, is a sign that for a number of reasons, this is Paul Ryan’s moment.

The 40-year-old Wisconsinite (he had a birthday on Friday) is one of the foremost idea engines in a Republican party known to most of the country more for TV and radio personalities than for its policy wonks. That may be about to change, however.

Part of the Obama strategy after Massachusetts – now that Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the House could conceivably switch back to Republican control this fall – is to place the onus on the opposition to govern with them.

“Both parties have a responsibility to govern here and we hope [Republicans] will accept that responsibility,” said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, on the budget conference call.

Many in the White House and in the Democratic party feel that Republicans were successful in 2009 simply by opposing everything Obama did, strictly for political reasons. The president himself has accused the GOP a few times in the last week or so of doing this.

Republicans bristle at this charge, of course. Ryan himself has complained of being shut out by the Democratic leaders in Congress.

But as Obama calls on the GOP to contribute to the debate over the economy, long-term spending and deficits and health care, lawmakers such as Ryan – who have been proposing comprehensive, detailed alternatives to the Obama agenda – are being thrust to the fore.

“I obviously didn’t expect to get this kind of attention,” Ryan said in a phone interview Monday. “But I’m very happy about it because … they can no longer say the Republican party has no ideas.”

The dynamic was on display Friday in Baltimore, when Obama told the House Republican caucus that he had read Ryan’s 93-page plan for American’s fiscal future and was familiar with it. The president, who was at times combative during a question-and-answer session and dismissed some questions by other Republican lawmakers, showed respect for Ryan’s ideas, even though he expressed disagreement.

“Paul … has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” Obama said. “I’ve read it. I can tell you what’s in it. There are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas in there that we should have a healthy debate about because I don’t agree with them.”

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who attended the session, said the nationally televised session will be a significant boost for Ryan’s political profile.

“When the president shows you that much respect the media is sure to follow, and the president acknowledging and emphasizing that he had read Paul’s materials shows you they are serious and significant,” Luntz said in an interview.

Pete Wehner, a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush, said Ryan’s “profile has been increasing for some time now, and I think that’s great news for the GOP.”

One veteran Republican operative said that Ryan “ought to be GOP leader,” though he also said that if the minority party did take back the House in November, currently Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, would likely retain his top spot in the party hierarchy.

A top aide to the Democratic House leadership said begrudgingly that Ryan is “a credible budget guy” but called him “very partisan in his voting.”

“He is kryptonite to progressives,” said Mary Matalin, a political adviser during both Bush administrations.

Ryan swears he has no ambition to run for higher office any time soon. But he is hosting two fundraisers this month in New Hampshire, which famously hosts the first primary in the presidential election every four years.

As for his budget plan, a Ryan spokeswoman said that the Medicare vouchers would be indexed for a blend of regular inflation and medical inflation, and the plan itself says that if a Medicare recipient does not use all of the money in the voucher (the average payment per Medicare patient currently is $11,000), they can put the money into a Medical Savings Account for short- or long-term health care.

The plan also has additional assistance for low-income recipients and lowers the payment for high-income recipients.

An aide to Ryan admitted that Orszag’s point, that vouchers under the Ryan plan would not keep pace with “the current growth rate for Medicare costs,” is correct.

The aide said, “it is worth nothing that the program itself can’t keep up with out-of-control health-care costs. In fact, its own trustees project the program to go bankrupt in the next seven years.”

In essence, Ryan’s plan presupposes that taking payments out of a re-distributionist model and into a direct payment model will help drive down costs and give individuals more fiscal control over their own medical future.

It’s not an argument to which the Obama administration is likely to warm to anytime soon. But it appears that they intend to at least address it head on.