When Republicans chose Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to deliver their party’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night, they did so with the intent of not only setting out a contrast in visions for the country’s future, but also with the goal of shaping the national debate over the next two years around fiscal issues.
But while his response was a highly calculated move, it was also a contrast we have seen before. Over the last two years, Ryan has consistently articulated better than anyone else in the GOP what many conservatives believe is the crisis of our time: a fast-growing and ever more intrusive government refashioning the relationship between the state and the individual from one of wary independence to a mutual co-dependence.
In responding to Obama’s address, Ryan drew clear distinctions between the conservative and liberal visions for America’s future.
“No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation,” said Ryan. “The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country.”
He went on to say, “Our nation is approaching a tipping point. We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century.”
The response was a continuation of an ongoing debate between Ryan and President Obama that has been played out on the national stage since the White House drew attention to Ryan over a year ago.
Here is a look back at the evolution of the Ryan-Obama debate:
November 2009 – It started with health care. During the health care debate, Ryan was one of the most outspoken critics of President Obama’s early promise to include Republican ideas in any reform bill. When Obama said “Democrats or Republicans, we welcome good ideas,” shortly after taking office, Ryan was hopeful the president was serious about working on a bipartisan solution. That hope apparently turned to cynicism not long after.
As a result, even when House leadership introduced their official alternative reform bill, the Republican goal had already turned into defeating the president’s plan. “The best outcome is if we stop this — then the Democrats will have a failed presidency on their hands, and then they’ll have to work with Republicans to get something done that’s bipartisan,” said Ryan in November 2009.
“They believe that is what America morally should become,” he added. “I believe that is completely antithetical to the American idea, the American project, and what America is about.”
January 2010 – House GOP meeting with President Obama. At the beginning of 2010, administration officials actually began drawing attention to Ryan. On January 29, 2010, President Obama accepted an invitation to speak at the House Republican retreat in Baltimore. During his speech, the president called on Republicans to contribute ideas for solving America’s deficit and debt problems, and singled out Ryan’s “Road Map for America” as a serious plan, even if he didn’t agree with much of it. “Paul…has looked at the budge and has made a serious proposal,” Obama said. “I’ve read it. I can tell you what’s in it.”
In the days that followed, then-Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag mentioned Ryan’s “Road Map” as well. “Rep. Ryan…has a plan for the future of the budget. That’s great,” said Orszag in early February 2010.
But none of that silenced Ryan’s opposition to the administration. At the January meeting between Obama and House Republicans, Ryan took the opportunity to pointedly question the president on his plan to control federal spending. “The spending bills that you’ve signed into law, the domestic discretionary spending has been increased by 84 percent,” said Ryan.
“So my question is, why not start freezing spending now?”
The exchange at that meeting solidified Ryan’s approach to dealing with the Obama administration: warning the White House not to claim Republicans had no alternative ideas to offer. He said as much in a phone interview with The Daily Caller last year. “They can no longer say the Republican Party has no ideas,” Ryan said.
February 2010 – Health Care Summit. Ryan’s match-up with President Obama at the GOP retreat was eclipsed just one month later at the bipartisan health care summit at the Blair House that included members from the administration and Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Ryan challenged Obama on the cost of his health care reform plan, calling the bill “full of gimmicks and smoke and mirrors.”
Ryan specifically targeted the Democrat claim that the reform bill would reduce the deficit by $131 billion over ten years. The true cost of the bill, said Ryan, was about $2.3 trillion over ten years and would add $460 billion to the deficit during that time. “Ignoring these costs does not remove them from the backs of taxpayers,” said Ryan. “Hiding spending does not reduce spending. So when you take a look at all this it doesn’t add up.”
Ryan went on to throw another blunt criticism Obama’s way when he said, “We are all representatives of the American people. We all do townhall meetings. We all talk to our constituents, and I gotta tell ya, the American people are engaged. And if you think they want a government takeover of health care I would respectfully submit that you’re not listening to them.”
March 2010 – The Obama budget. When it came time for the White House to submit their budget proposal for fiscal year 2011, Ryan slammed it as being a plan that would “literally crash the U.S. economy.” In media interviews, Ryan claimed the U.S. budget already contained $76 trillion worth of unfunded liabilities. According to Ryan, it would cost each household hundreds of thousands of dollars to fill in the gap between the actual revenue the government was projected to bring in, and expenses on entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.
“All those unfunded liabilities – all that debt I’ve been telling you about is before you pass this budget,” said Ryan. “If you pass the Obama budget, it just gets worse.”
December 2010 – The White House fiscal commission report. Just last month, Ryan broke even with some conservatives on the fiscal commission by not voting for the White House’s fiscal commission report. Ryan argued that while the plan made progress on some issues, it ignored the cost of the health care bill. “It takes a few steps forward on Social Security and taxes and discretionary [spending], but it takes many steps backwards in health care,” said Ryan. “And that’s the big thing.”