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There is no doubt that Ryan’s proposed budget, which included tackling the nation’s Medicare problem, has made him an icon to some conservatives. Those conservatives apparently are looking past his other votes, some of which they undoubtedly would use to demonize a different Member of Congress as a “big government” establishment Republican.
Conservatives’ infatuation with Ryan is dangerous in another way.
Ryan’s budget may reflect Republican values and approaches, but from a political point of view it is a serious burden with no possible near-term payoff.
While the Democrats’ health care reform bill damaged the Democratic brand, frightened swing voters and moderates, energized conservatives and Republicans, and was a significant factor in the Democrats’ disastrous 2010 midterm election losses, at least the Democrats achieved their ultimate goal: establishing a new national health care system.
For many Democrats, the political losses were a small price to pay for finally passing their signature legislative achievement.
But Republicans aren’t going to pass the Ryan budget or fundamentally change Medicare, at least not this year or next. They don’t control the Senate, and they can’t get the Wisconsin Republican’s plan through it. Instead, Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget have merely taken a hard vote — a very hard vote — that may well result in some of them losing re-election next year.
Ryan surely deserves credit for starting a conversation, but GOP strategists believe that the Medicare debate created by Ryan’s budget is a considerable problem for their party’s candidates over the next year and a half.
“The Ryan budget is an excellent rallying cry for Democratic partisans, much as health care reform was a rallying cry for Republicans last year,” one Republican operative said. “Not only is Democratic enthusiasm up, but a part of the Republican electorate has reduced enthusiasm. Plus, it reduces our numbers among seniors, who are very important to us next year to offset the increase in turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds.”
This doesn’t mean that Ryan’s budget and his proposed changes for Medicare will be fatal to Republican prospects next year. The 2012 presidential contest will create a very different context than the one that existed for this week’s special election in New York.
But at some point, conservatives will realize that Ryan’s proposal is a considerable problem for the party and that a Ryan presidential bid would be an even bigger problem.
When they do, those Republicans and conservatives will be relieved that Paul Ryan, no matter how courageous, articulate, thoughtful and intelligent they think he is, isn’t the GOP nominee for president.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.