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Paul Ryan’s Two Paths

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) often insists that America faces a choice of two futures. Ryan lays out this stark choice in a video promoting his latest budget: 

"Americans have a choice to make. A choice that’s going to determine our country’s future. Will it be the future that looks like the America we know? One of greater opportunity, greater prosperity? Or more of what we’re seeing today? Debt, doubt, and decline. Americans, not Washington, should decide." - Rep. Paul Ryan

He’s right.  Continued growth in spending, or even stagnation in our current state of affairs, will inevitably bankrupt our nation. Alternatively, we can cut spending and reform government through a restoration of constitutional limitations and principles. While Ryan’s latest budget is imperfect, it’s an excellent first step toward the return of a free and prosperous America.

But the evolution of that plan over the past four years is troubling. Since introducing his first “Roadmap for America’s Future” in 2008, Ryan has gone to great lengths to win bipartisan support. The roadmap, now in its fourth iteration under the label of “path to prosperity,” has grown more moderate and less exciting for fiscal conservatives with each passing year. In the past, Ryan tried to implement bold, principled reform of entitlement programs. His latest budget barely touches Social Security, and his Medicare reform leaves much to be desired. 

Ryan has been moving leftward. But why?


He’s a statesman, and he wants to be effective. He wants to get things done. And like a true statesman, he’s leaving no stone unturned.  But he is unfortunately going about it in a problematic way. His underwhelming Medicare reform package, co-authored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), is characteristic of his drive for Democratic support. He knows that as things stand today, his proposals have zero chance of passing without votes from the other side of the aisle. 

That’s understandable, but it’s also misguided, because it overestimates the good faith of the other side. For Ryan, it’s about saving the country. For the political left, it’s about power. And so, under current conditions pursuing a “bipartisan” accommodation with the left becomes an exercise in futility. 

There are two basic approaches to getting things done in government.

A) You can try to gain support from the other side of the aisle for your bill. B) You can stand on principle and take your case to the voters. 

For minor, routine, or obviously necessary legislation, A is the easiest route. However, appealing to other legislators often requires a great deal of bargaining. Ryan (under pressure from his more squeamish GOP colleagues) has spent the last four years tirelessly pursing this method, making concession after concession in his budgets, but to no avail. In 2008, the Democrats in charge of the House Budget Committee didn’t even allow his proposal to make it out of committee. 

For the past two years, however, the House of Representatives has voted to pass his budget. Did all of those concessions make the difference? Hardly. Both years, exactly zero Democrats voted yes. Indeed, Senate Democrats have even refused to take up the House-passed budgets for a vote, thereby leaving the plans to die. No, it was electoral gains that made the difference. 

In effect, Ryan and the Republicans have been negotiating with themselves since 2008. The Democrats have never come to the table. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) even claimed that it would be “foolish” for Democrats to propose a budget.

This is the danger of the first approach to lawmaking. It only works if both sides are in good faith. Ryan is beginning to lose the support of strong fiscal conservatives. This year, ten Republican congressmen voted against his budget. With each new move to the left, more and more conservatives will drop their support. Since the left is content with forcing ever-greater concessions without actually making any concessions of its own, losing the support of fiscal conservatives would be devastating. 

To be sure, this is a difficult situation.

Thankfully, we don’t have to play their game. Instead, there is always the second option: appealing directly to the American people.

A popular FreedomWorks maxim illustrates this point: When we act like us, we win. When we act like them, we lose. Consider the last three times conservatives made major gains: Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980, the Contract with America in 1994, and the Tea Party revolution in 2010. In all three instances, conservatives ran as, well, conservatives. We ran on the principles of fiscal conservatism and constitutionally limited government. 

When Republicans nominated the fiscally liberal Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for president in 2008, conservative Americans simply didn’t show up, and President Obama won in an absolute landslide. Which calls to mind another FreedomWorks maxim: Government goes to those who show up. Conservative leaders such as Paul Ryan must give people a reason to show up, however, and a budget that never really balances and eliminates no cabinet departments isn’t the way to do it.

Sure, on some level we obviously have to negotiate with lawmakers on the left. However, we must also stand on our principles. When we act like us, we win the support of the American people. We need to campaign on the message of liberty, on fiscal responsibility and the wisdom of the Founders’ Constitution. A sincere appeal to the message of liberty will always reach the hearts and minds of the American people.

So, now it’s Ryan and his fellow Republicans who teeter on the brink. They are the ones who face a choice of two futures: compromising on principles and moderating themselves to irrelevance, or re-affirming their faith in the Constitution, fiscal common sense, and the strength of the American people to meet the challenges before us. For their sake, and ours, let’s hope they choose the right path.