Paul Ryan then and now

In 2011, Rep. Paul Ryan put forth a bold plan to reform Medicare. His plan had no chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate, much less being signed into law by President Obama. But, as one of Ryan’s aides told me, the Congressman felt that the current entitlement system is a time bomb waiting to explode and bring down America. Thus, he perceived a duty to propose legislation that would fix the system, regardless of whether it could be enacted.

Three plus years later, Ryan still believes that the U.S. faces a debt crisis that threatens to bring the nation down. At least, he agreed with Sean Hannity last night that this is the situation.

Yet Ryan has put forward a budget deal that, as he admitted to Hannity, does not remotely fix the situation. Why?

His explanation last night was simple and indisputable. Barack Obama is the President and Harry Reid is the Senate Majority Leader.

But this was also the situation in 2011. Why was Ryan determined to push sound but futile legislation then, but not now?

One explanation is fear of the political fallout of another government shutdown. But this explanation, while perhaps biographically correct, is not satisfactory.

Ryan’s Medicare proposal also threatened serious political fallout. Indeed, the Ryan aide I mentioned earlier told me in 2011 that the Congressman was deeply concerned that by radically reforming Medicare, he might be jeopardizing Republican electoral prospects. But Ryan felt compelled to push ahead because it was the right thing to do.

Today, insisting on a tougher budget deal also presents political risk. But it is far from clear that this risk exceeds that which Ryan assumed in 2011. That risk — in essence, that Republicans would be perceived as heartless — came to fruition in the 2012 election.

Moreover, the risk Republicans face now if they don’t embrace Ryan’s deal has been created to a considerable extent by the very fact that Ryan struck the deal.

Republicans don’t automatically experience political damage because the government shuts down. Republicans incur political damage only if they receive most of the blame for the shutdown.

Republicans received most of the blame for the recent shutdown, as we predicted they would. Why? Because the stalemate stemmed from Republican insistence that the status quo, reflected in legislation passed by Congress, be overhauled.

In the current budget dispute, it is the Democrats who seek to overturn the status quo, in this case the sequester. But Congress enacted the sequester — the Democrats’ idea — and from all that appears, the public is satisfied with it. Thus, there was little reason to fear that the public would place primary blame on Republicans for a shutdown stemming from the Democrats’ effort to end the sequester.

Ryan’s deal with Patty Murray reverses this happy dynamic. Now, in the public’s mind as formed by the liberal media, the deal becomes the baseline. A shutdown would be blamed on those who reject the bipartisan deal.

So Republicans are correct to judge that a shutdown would hurt them. But they should blame Paul Ryan for helping to create this problem.

Why the change in Ryan’s approach from 2011 to 2014? I don’t know, but suggest the following explanation for your consideration.

Ryan’s goal in 2011 was to become the policy-crafting leader of a Party in which the Tea Party had become a huge player. In 2014, with the Tea Party’s star seeming to fade, Ryan wants to establish himself as the man who can lead the Party away from what critics say is its overly confrontational, uncompromisingly ideological approach to governance — the very approach Ryan embraced in the heady days following the 2010 election.

UPDATE: Seth Mandel also suggests that the consistency in Ryan’s approach to budgets can be located in his ambition.

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