Stockman Savages Ryan

If there’s anyone in recent political history who is a definite precursor to Paul Ryan, it has to be David Stockman, another bright young congress-critter who combined conservative ideological totems (in his case, supply-side economics) with green-eyeshade budget credentials, and became the living symbol of GOP efforts to take on the New Deal/Great Society programs. Stockman left his safe congressional seat to become Ronald Reagan’s OMB director, and after savage internal and external battles with Republicans and Democrats alike, quit the job in 1985 and penned the definitive book about the Reagan Revolution and its contradictions, The Triumph of Politics.

Stockman only occasionally bursts into public view these days, but has now done so with a vengeance in a New York Times op-ed column blasting Ryan’s budget plan as a complete fraud. Though using Ryan’s Veep selection as his point of departure and the Ryan Budget as a major talking point, Stockman is generally indicting his own former party and the conservative movement that once praised him in terms identical to its current love-fest with Ryan:

Thirty years of Republican apostasy — a once grand party’s embrace of the welfare state, the warfare state and the Wall Street-coddling bailout state — have crippled the engines of capitalism and buried us in debt. Mr. Ryan’s sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to “job creators” (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation’s economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse.

This is pretty much the same Stockman who once denounced the 1981 tax bill he oversaw as a feeding frenzy among hogs, and who in his book all but called Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger a traitor for bamboozling Reagan in order to grossly inflate the Pentagon budget. And his ultimate loyalties to the Creditor Class are abundantly clear; he’s even more obsessed than Ryan with hard money nostrums.

But he certainly knows his budget numbers, and isn’t afraid to challenge Ryan’s deficit-cutting street cred:

Mr. Ryan showed his conservative mettle in 2008 when he folded like a lawn chair on the auto bailout and the Wall Street bailout. But the greater hypocrisy is his phony “plan” to solve the entitlements mess by deferring changes to social insurance by at least a decade.

A true agenda to reform the welfare state would require a sweeping, income-based eligibility test, which would reduce or eliminate social insurance benefits for millions of affluent retirees. Without it, there is no math that can avoid giant tax increases or vast new borrowing. Yet the supposedly courageous Ryan plan would not cut one dime over the next decade from the $1.3 trillion-per-year cost of Social Security and Medicare.

Instead, it shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Shifting more Medicaid costs to the states will be mere make-believe if federal financing is drastically cut.

Likewise, hacking away at the roughly $400 billion domestic discretionary budget (what’s left of the federal budget after defense, Social Security, health and safety-net spending and interest on the national debt) will yield only a rounding error’s worth of savings after popular programs (which Republicans heartily favor) like cancer research, national parks, veterans’ benefits, farm aid, highway subsidies, education grants and small-business loans are accommodated.

This is a large and angry revival of Stockman’s constant theme in The Triumph of Politics that Republicans were only interested in cutting federal spending or tax subsides that benefitted someone other than their own constituencies. And as in the 1980s, he’s more than happy to go after the supply-side faith he once shared as well:

The Ryan Plan boils down to a fetish for cutting the top marginal income-tax rate for “job creators” — i.e. the superwealthy — to 25 percent and paying for it with an as-yet-undisclosed plan to broaden the tax base. Of the $1 trillion in so-called tax expenditures that the plan would attack, the vast majority would come from slashing popular tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance, mortgage interest, 401(k) accounts, state and local taxes, charitable giving and the like, not to mention low rates on capital gains and dividends. The crony capitalists of K Street already own more than enough Republican votes to stop that train before it leaves the station.

Some of this thunder and lightning may reflect Stockman’s residual bitterness from the Reagan years, when he was discarded for having the temerity to “talk out of school” about GOP gutlessness and treachery in a famous interview with William Greider and then in his book. But his op-ed is a useful primer on the sleight-of-hand being utilized by Ryan and other contemporary conservatives who want to blow up the deficit with tax cuts before finding the most mendacious and cruel ways to reduce selected elements of the federal budget. Stockman is and should be angry that Ryan’s getting away with posing as his successor.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.