Paul Ryan’s challenge

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So this is how it begins. Paul Ryan, one of today’s most consequential national politicians, finds his proposed entitlement reform plan under fire from the ambitious, the confused, and the naïve. Symbolizing the ambitious is Democrat Kathy Hochul, whose special-election victory last week in a conservative upstate New York Congressional district illuminated the path to victory for the Democratic Party: delegitimize the very notion of Medicare reform by insisting that you are fighting against conservative avarice, while you calculate that the blame for America’s coming fiscal meltdown, which you have made inevitable, will fall on other shoulders. Hochul’s victory has become a moment of revealed truth in our politics.

To achieve his monumental reforms, Paul Ryan must transcend the din of confusion that has trapped much of our nation’s political leadership. Normal political calculations have surely changed after the 2008 crisis and the dismal results that have followed from Obama’s perverse fiscal and regulatory policies, but Ryan will still fight on political terrain firmly held by the Left. Solid precedent for his efforts exists, but his task is made difficult by the normal spending and redistributive preferences of liberal democracies and the hesitancy of many conservative politicians to take on entitlement reform.

On this front, perhaps no better example of statesmanship exists than Winston Churchill in his battles with the Labor Party and substantial elements in the Conservative Party over defense preparations in the 1930s. Not only was the English leadership opposed to robust rearmament as a buffer to Hitler’s military expansionism, but the wider population as well judged it a low priority. In a 1938 House of Commons speech urging greater air defense expenditures, Churchill was mocked by a backbencher who asked, “How much is enough?” To this, Churchill repeated the story of a man who received a telegram from Brazil: “Your mother-in-law dead; wire instructions.” Churchill noted that the young man replied: “Embalm, cremate, bury at sea. Take no chances.”

Paul Ryan’s plan for America’s endless budget deficits is to “embalm, cremate, bury at sea.” But most of all it is: “Take no chances.” If he were so inclined, perhaps that would be his presidential campaign slogan: “Paul Ryan, take no chances.” To surpass the rather flat condition of our nation’s leadership, Ryan will have to negate the ambition of his own heckling backbenchers like Hochul and her party’s leadership, and the confusion of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, among others, if he is to unite the naïve within his own party and defeat the welfare-state Democrats. The wildcard that Ryan must have is the formation of a new public consensus on entitlements: what they can and cannot provide. His task as a statesman will be forged here, or his time as a leader could be lost to the winds of anonymity.

While the overwhelming majority of Congressional Republicans have voted for Ryan’s budget plan, many are likely to pull their rip cords early if, as seems apparent, the White House and its allies continue to savage Ryan’s plan. To blunt the White House’s demagoguery, Ryan will have to go beyond facts. After all, what’s a fact without a conception of the good within which to place it? Ryan must do what few conservatives have done apart from Ronald Reagan — that is, persuade a majority of likely voters that their character will be effaced by the continuation of regnant liberal policies. Enough citizens must learn from Ryan’s words and political example the unassuming dignity of being free citizens of a free government. Ryan must make it obvious to voters that under President Obama, the road isn’t necessarily to serfdom but to the boredom of dependency and the train of social consequences this creates.

Ryan should state directly that Obamacare is not ultimately about costs and healthcare delivery. Rather, its truth is in the type of citizens it will manifest. As more and more Americans are dumped into Medicaid, costs will explode, but more than this, the ability of free men and women to choose the future of this country will evaporate. If our bodies become wards of the state, then our spirits will follow in turn.

Some will always maintain that Ryan’s reform package was too much too soon. However, by introducing it when he did, Ryan immediately forced President Obama to swing at right-wing phantoms, to acknowledge that the budget he offered as president was unserious and unworthy of consideration. The Senate this week told him as much when it unanimously rejected his budget. Obama has now conceded that his re-election campaign is predicated on a giant fiscal-political gamble. The anointed one has wagered that the bond markets won’t begin screaming over America’s structural debts during his second term, and that voters are still not ready to accept the spending discipline that Ryan’s budget entails. The former is by definition hard to predict, but the latter will be Ryan’s burden to prove wrong.

Of course, Ryan doesn’t face a wicked imperial power as Churchill did. But he does face an enemy of zeros that slowly enfolds the passions of a people until they are inert and nearly lifeless. The belief that the comfort and care provided by government is something of a birthright inexorably smothers the energy of a free society. Moreover, politicians of both parties will acknowledge our dismal fiscal reality, but many will prefer ambition, confusion, naiveté, or to be otherwise preoccupied as the maelstrom swirls outside the nation’s door. They will have their reward. Let us hope that Ryan’s reward for maintaining the faith of our Constitution and its ancient principles will be greater.

Richard M. Reinsch II is the author of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary published by ISI Books, 2010.