Paul Ryan’s speech accepting the Republican party’s nomination for vice president was everything that could have been hoped for by the Romney campaign and more. It made the case against President Obama in devastating terms—using humor and memorable line after memorable line to drive home the main point that the president has been a miserable failure in office. The speech is likely to have lasting impact in this campaign.
Which perhaps explains the panicky reaction of the mainstream press and Ryan’s liberal critics. Almost from the moment Ryan finished his speech, apologists for the president (including the Washington Post) have come out swinging, quite plainly indignant that Ryan landed so many punches when the usual media filters couldn’t stop him.
These criticisms of Ryan’s speech are absurd. Everything Ryan said is factual and a fair reading of the record and prior events.
Let’s start with Medicare. Ryan’s critics are beside themselves that the Romney campaign has effectively pinned $716 billion in Medicare cuts on the Obama administration. Two arguments are made to defend the president. First, it is said that Ryan’s own budget cut Medicare by the same amount. But the Ryan budget not only repealed all of Obamacare’s spending, it also doesn’t specify the kinds of Medicare cuts Obamacare does: It calls for the same level of savings but doesn’t spend the money elsewhere and leaves room for Congress to pursue those savings in ways that don’t rely on price controls and the elimination of benefits. Moreover, both Romney and Ryan have said that they, in a Romney administration, would meet their budgetary goals without Obamacare’s Medicare cuts by trimming elsewhere in the budget. And it is certainly the case that Romney and Ryan will have much greater flexibility than Ryan did as House Budget Committee chairman to make cuts wherever they can find them.
Ryan’s critics also take exception to the implication that the Medicare “cuts” will do any harm to the health care provided to seniors, arguing that the savings come from “targeted cuts to providers,” not seniors. This is utter nonsense. Among the cuts in Obamacare is a deep and permanent reduction in payments to Medicare Advantage plans. According to the Medicare trustees, that cut will force 4 million seniors out of their Medicare Advantage plans. There is no question that these seniors will lose thousands of dollars per year in health benefits because of these cuts. Moreover, the chief actuary for the Medicare program has projected that, by the end of this decade, 15 percent of facilities will have to stop taking Medicare patients because of Obamacare’s cuts. That will directly impair access to care for millions of seniors, and the percentage of hospitals and nursing homes dropping out of Medicare will grow to 25 percent by 2030.
Ryan’s critics are also up in arms over his mention of the closed GM plant in Janesville, Wis. They claim that Ryan blamed President Obama for the closing of the plant—but Ryan explicitly said that the plant was already closing when then-candidate Obama came to Janesville in 2008: “We were about to lose a major factory,” Ryan said last night. Second, it is worth recalling that Obama, in a June 2008 statement, said that, if elected president, he would “lead an effort to retool plants like the GM facility in Janesville.” This is further confirmation of Ryan’s point that Obama essentially promised to find a way to keep the plant open after he became president—and did not deliver.
But let’s step back and look at Ryan’s larger point. He was making the argument that, even with the Obama bailout, the Obama economy is so bad that the plant is still closed and, what’s worse, there’s no prospect that other vibrant industries will take its place. That’s absolutely a fair indictment of the Obama record, especially so because Obama went to the plant and promised hope and change in 2008.
Then there is the business of the U.S. credit downgrade and the Bowles-Simpson commission. In his speech, Ryan properly excoriated the president for his profligate spending and for his indifference to the nation’s debt crisis. During the president’s term, the national debt will rise by more than $5 trillion. Ryan pinned S&P’s decision to lower the credit rating for debt issued by the U.S. government on the president’s failure to lead on fiscal matters, and chastised him specifically for appointing the Bowles-Simpson commission and then doing nothing with the commission’s recommendations. Ryan’s critics say he is being hypocritical because Ryan himself also opposed the Bowles-Simpson recommendations.
But when Ryan opposed that plan (because it left in place Obamacare’s massive new entitlement spending), he proposed an alternative and passed it through the House of Representatives. What did President Obama do? Nothing. He appointed the commission to buy time during the 2010 campaign season, and then, in 2011, decided that leading on the deficit wasn’t in his political interest. So he proposed no plan of his own. And then when Ryan proposed his plan to actually head off a fiscal crisis, the president attacked it in the most partisan and demagogic terms possible. Is it any surprise, with this kind of behavior from the president, that the parties weren’t able to come to an amicable agreement? Any fair reading of the record shows that the president has abdicated his leadership responsibilities on fiscal matters. He richly deserves the blame for the downgrade.
Finally, Ryan’s critics cannot stomach the fact that Ryan refuses to play along with their caricatures of him as an uncaring Randian, obsessed with individualism and indifferent to the needs of the vulnerable. In his speech, Ryan specifically noted that a society should be measured by how well the strong protect the weak. That’s entirely consistent with the budget plan he favors. As usual, his critics want the world to equate more governmental programs and spending with improvement in the lives of the poor. And yet, after trillions in spending, poverty and dependence are on the rise under President Obama.
Under Romney and Ryan, there will be plenty of room for generous government spending on a safety net for those who are truly incapable of taking care of themselves. That’s as it should be. But what the poor really need is opportunity, for better-paying jobs and mobility up the wage scale. There is a mountain of evidence that what will help the poor more than anything else is a vibrant free-market economy. Moreover, the reason welfare reform was such a success in 1996 was not that it limited government spending (although it did do that) but that it improved the lives of millions of lower-income American families by emphasizing work over dependence. That’s a lesson that Ryan’s critics, the president included, still have not learned.
Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech was a tour de force, and a clear success. One measure of that success is t
he intensity and emptiness of the attacks coming his way. The irony is that these attacks—intended to damage Ryan by undermining his credibility—are more likely to be seen by the electorate for what they really are: desperate and dishonest tactics from those willing to say and do anything to hang on to power.
James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.