Paul Ryan should stay away from entitlement reform next year

I have heard several Republican presidential candidates, including Ted Cruz, publicly wish that the GOP would fight as hard for conservative principles as President Obama fights for radical leftist ones. It’s a good thought, but I wonder whether those expressing it realize the full implications.

One crucial way that Obama fought for his radical leftist principles was to conceal them when running for president. For example, he didn’t support gay marriage or executive amnesty for illegal aliens; nor, except in a slip with Joe the Plumber, did he advocate income redistribution. He did not run as the radical leftist he is. He wasn’t Bernie Sanders; he wasn’t even the latest incarnation of Hillary Clinton — not in 2008 and not in 2012.

Obama was able to conceal his intentions in part because he didn’t need to express them to be nominated. In 2008, he was the favorite of the left by virtue of having opposed the Iraq war. In 2012, he was unopposed for the nomination.

This year’s Republican contenders are in a very different position. In this crowded field, there is more incentive to exaggerate one’s conservatism than to conceal it.

But what about Paul Ryan? He isn’t running for president. There is no reason for him to put all of his conservative cards on the table and force Republican incumbents in the House to embrace them by voting for legislation that cannot be enacted.

Yet reports have emerged that he is clashing with Donald Trump over whether Republicans should push for entitlement reform in Congress next year. Trump, nothing if not shrewd and pragmatic, has by far the better case — congressional Republicans should avoid the issue.

What is to be gained by pushing for Medicare or Social Security reform in Congress next year? Senate Democrats will block whatever legislation passes the House. Obama won’t even need to veto it, as he certainly would.

All Ryan would accomplish is to reinforce the Democrats’ talking point that the GOP is the enemy of Medicare and Social Security.

Has this scare tactic lost some of its effectiveness? Probably.

But why test how much it has lost by passing futile legislation? Why pressure or tempt members to jump on a cause that might hurt them in their particular district?

Above all, why hang potentially unpopular entitlement reform measures around the neck of the eventual presidential nominee. The House majority seems safe, absent a major Ryan gamble gone bad. 2016 is primarily about trying to recapture the White House.

Accordingly, let the Republican nominee work out the Republican position on entitlement reform. Don’t force him or her to clash publicly with the Speaker of the House. Don’t allow Democrats to suggest that the Republican nominee is hiding the ball and that the real GOP position is Ryan’s (presumably) more draconian one.

Why is Ryan so determined to move on entitlement reform? I assume it’s a power play. He thinks he owns the issue and wants to constrain the eventual nominee.

This may also be a manifestation of what I see as a Boy Scout mentality on the part of the new Speaker. He correctly sees our entitlement programs as in distress and wants to act to rescue them now. That they can’t be rescued doesn’t matter; it’s the gesture that counts. That the futile rescue attempt carries political risk makes the gesture all the more noble.

A similar recklessness can be detected in Ryan’s support of amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The vast majority of the new voters Ryan wants to create will almost surely oppose limited government.

But this concern is of no consequence. Somehow, in Ryan’s view, we have a moral responsibility, come what may, to grant full status to lawbreakers who, as a class, have already significantly improved their status by coming here illegally (and who can always leave if they feel their status hasn’t improved sufficiently).

Paul Ryan has a big heart, a big intellect, and a desire to do big things. All three qualities are admirable in the abstract. But ungoverned by a sense of modesty and prudence, they can produce far more harm than good. In Ryan’s case, I fear they will.