Opinion

Reihan Salam

The rise and future role of Paul Ryan

Reihan Salam
Oct 31, 2012 18:51 UTC

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s presidential election, Mitt Romney has greatly elevated the stature and the reach of Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and this year’s GOP vice presidential nominee. And though the presidential election is extremely close — indeed, though Barack Obama may well have the upper hand — one can’t help but speculate about the role Ryan would play in a Romney White House, and in the larger conservative movement.

For much of his tenure in Congress, Ryan has devoted himself to crafting ambitious policy initiatives that barely saw the light of day. During the Bush administration, the young Wisconsin congressman pressed for an overhaul of Medicare that would create a prescription drug benefit while also implementing a system designed to contain cost growth. In the end, crucial portions were abandoned due to opposition from gun-shy congressional Republicans as well as congressional Democrats. Ryan was also one of the most enthusiastic champions of revamping Social Security by introducing voluntary personal accounts, an effort that arguably boomeranged by contributing to the dramatic Democratic comeback in the 2006 congressional elections.

The boomerang kept going; it was President Obama’s health reform effort that gave Ryan a new lease on life. Together with Senator Tom Coburn and a handful of other conservative allies, he offered a right-of-center proposal for coverage expansion. Though Ryan’s plan wasn’t embraced by most members of the Republican caucus, it established him as a thought leader on the right. After Republicans won the House in 2010, Speaker John Boehner named Ryan chairman of the House Budget Committee, a role he used to great effect. Rather than stick to setting broad goals and priorities, Ryan devised a budget proposal that set the agenda for conservatives for years to come on entitlement reform. At the time, many of them saw Ryan’s call for a market-oriented overhaul of Medicare as politically suicidal. And indeed, President Obama waged war on Ryan’s proposal, devoting an entire speech in April 2011 to attacking it. The president went so far as to characterize Ryan’s agenda as “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.”

But one of the more striking aspects of Ryan’s career has been his frequent though largely unheralded efforts to reconcile his free market ideals with the demands of social justice. Back in 2011 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered sharp criticisms of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget resolution passed by House Republicans. Though many conservatives dismissed the criticisms as entirely predictable, Ryan sent an open letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the Conference, which made the case that the budget resolution is very much in keeping with Catholic social teaching, arguing that “human dignity is undermined when citizens become passive clients living on redistributions from government bureaucracies.” To make his case against enervating bureaucracies, Ryan cited the words of no less an authority than Pope John Paul the Great, who warned against “the loss of human energies” and the “inordinate increase of public agencies” that had accompanied the rise of the “social assistance state.” Far from undermining the social safety net for America’s most vulnerable citizens, Ryan argued that his approach would strengthen it by placing it on a sound fiscal footing. Suffice it to say, Ryan’s intervention didn’t satisfy all or even many of his critics among Catholic social thinkers, but it represented a sincere and respectful effort at starting a dialogue.

In a similar vein, Ryan reached out to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the most well-regarded liberals in Congress, to craft a Medicare reform proposal that could pass muster with at least some Democrats. Though Ryan and Wyden disagreed passionately about the wisdom of Obama’s health reform — Ryan was strongly opposed and Wyden strongly in favor — they came together on a plan that aimed to contain cost growth in Medicare through the use of market competition. In deciding to work with Wyden, Ryan abandoned his original proposal for Medicare reform, which envisioned phasing out a Medicare public option. Ryan also agreed to a higher growth target, a concession that meant that he would have to find savings elsewhere in the federal budget. Many Democrats, meanwhile, were sharply critical of Wyden for having cooperated with Ryan, despite the fact that Wyden had made it clear he opposed a Medicare overhaul that also entailed repealing the Affordable Care Act. Ryan’s cooperation with Wyden did not usher in an era of bipartisan comity. It did, however, represent a willingness to make significant concessions in service to the larger cause of creating a more sustainable social safety net.

Are we having the wrong marriage debate?

Reihan Salam
Oct 19, 2012 21:34 UTC

The marriage debate is entering a new phase. As recently as 1996, a Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans opposed civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. On May 8 of this year, Gallup released a report which found that only 48 percent were opposed to same-sex marriage while 50 percent were in favor. The next day, in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News, President Barack Obama announced that he too favored the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, a move that delighted social liberals, many of whom believed that the president’s previous tepid opposition was rooted in political concerns rather than real conviction.

Even in the months since, the legal and political ground has continued to shift in favor of same-sex marriage. Just this week, a divided panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a law that limits federal recognition of marriages to couples consisting of one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, ballot initiatives aiming to uphold laws authorizing same-sex civil marriage are leading in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Perhaps most strikingly, a re-energized Romney campaign has made little effort to capitalize on opposition to same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the practice have no intention of throwing in the towel; nor is it inevitable that the legal and political efforts of advocates will continue to succeed. In November, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson are releasing What Is Marriage?, a vigorous intellectual critique of the case for same-sex civil marriage that has attracted wide attention in traditionalist circles. Moreover, opponents have achieved a number of political victories at the state and local level, most notably in North Carolina in May of this year.

Moving beyond our vacuous education reform discussions

Reihan Salam
Oct 12, 2012 16:16 UTC

Barack Obama is a champion of education reform. So is Mitt Romney. Even in the midst of an extremely polarized political season, the former Massachusetts governor has offered praise for Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, and for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. The same is true of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has emerged as the GOP’s leading point person on fixing America’s schools. To those who lament partisan rancor, this might look like very good news. But it’s not. Rather, it is an indication that our conversation about “education reform” is pretty vacuous.

The reform label applies to at least three broad ideas: (1) standards-oriented reform, or let’s have more testing and accountability; (2) human capital reform, or let’s have better teachers; and (3) choice-oriented reform, or let’s use “backpack funding” that will allow public education dollars to follow the student wherever she chooses to enroll, whether it’s a neighborhood public school, a public charter or (perhaps) a voucher-eligible private school. Many people who love one kind of reform hate the others, so saying you’re “pro-reform” doesn’t mean very much.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. There is something about public education that starts Americans gushing and makes them sentimental and unrigorous. Hardly anyone disagrees with the late R&B songstress Whitney Houston, who believed that the children are our future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. Schmaltz is deployed on all sides of the debate – from teachers’ union members who insist that those who oppose across-the-board pay hikes don’t care about kids to voucher proponents who specialize in heartstring-tugging tales of inner-city youth.

No matter who wins, there’s still a healthcare cost crisis

Reihan Salam
Oct 1, 2012 17:10 UTC

One of the strangest aspects of the 2012 presidential campaign is that President Obama has barely bothered to make the case for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Mitt Romney has only rarely summoned the will to make the case against it. This is despite the fact that ACA is arguably the most consequential domestic policy legislation since 1965, when President Johnson presided over the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

The usual explanation for why we haven’t had a serious debate over ACA is that Democrats recognize that the law is not wildly popular and that Romney is boxed in by his continued support for the universal coverage law he backed as governor of Massachusetts. All of this may well be true. But the foundations of America’s patchwork health system are unraveling before our eyes, and conservatives need to make the case for a more cost-effective reform sooner rather than later.

It is commonly understood that the United States spends an incredibly large amount of money on personal healthcare – the number was $2.19 trillion in 2010 – and that health spending is increasing rapidly as a share of GDP. A high level of health spending isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes perfect sense that an affluent country will spend a great deal of money to keep its citizens healthy, and medical care is a complex service that demands a lot of skilled labor.

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