The Two Paul Ryans

To hear the conservative chatter this morning, all the complaints about Paul Ryan’s various lies and prevarications last night are, of course, just partisan sour grapes. America loves the precious little bugger, we’re told, and he’s right to spank Obama for trying to steal his mom’s Medicare benefits in order to help those people.

But from the libertarian world, there’s a lonely dissent at Reason.com’s blog, penned by Peter Suderman:

The GOP has now made its intentions clear: Defend Medicare at all costs, now and forever. And in doing so, it’s weakened one of the party’s most promising policy reformers.

Even though the party’s latest platform acknowledges that Medicare is the largest single driver of the debt, and even as the party has inched toward making reform of the seniors health program a priority, it has also declared its intention to protect and defend the program at all costs. The GOP would have us believe that Medicare is both the biggest problem and the biggest success in American government, wrecking our public finances but also in need of saving from the current administration’s cuts.

On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney has declared that it was wrong for Obama to cut Medicare, and promised never to cut the program himself. Now Rep. Paul Ryan, the chief GOP proponent of Medicare reform in Congress and Romney’s running mate, has thoroughly bought into this argument. Ryan’s GOP convention speech tonight went all in on the defense of Medicare. “Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it,” he said. And the reason to repeal ObamaCare is because of the way it upends the existing entitlement structure. “The greatest threat to Medicare,” according to Rep. Ryan,” is ObamaCare, and we’re going to stop it….”

What we’re seeing is the war between two Paul Ryans. He has always been a conservative policy reformer as well as a good party soldier. But when the two have come into conflict, the party soldier has almost always won. That’s made him an effective politician, and helped him carry his policy case into the spotlight. But ultimately it will probably make him far less successful as a policy entreprenuer.

Cheer up, Peter. If Romney and Ryan win, and particularly if Republicans gain control of Congress, the campaign’s promises to protect Medicare from the mean old black man won’t matter at all. Indeed, Ryan has long pretended that eliminating Medicare’s most distinctive features as a defined-benefit “entitlement” is his idea of “protecting” it. And this is a guy who has no problem claiming–and for all I know, believing–that he’s got the best interests of the poor in mind when he seeks to liberate them from dependence on food stamps, Medicaid, the EITC, etc., so that they can become vigorous upwardly mobile chaps like he was.

I’m guessing Ryan’s mom isn’t going to be relying on Medicaid to cover any nursing home expenses she might encounter, so all she’ll have to worry about is her son’s determination to re-open the Part D “donut hole” and perhaps some new deductibles she’ll face if ObamaCare is repealed. But more generally, this isn’t a White House team that puts a whole lot of stock in honesty or consistency, so “reformers” can relax. Romney’s and Ryan’s Medicare promises are written in the kind of disappearing ink that hack magicians use. Now you see it; now you don’t.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.