The Two Magic Asterisks

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall does a good job of drilling down through the rhetoric and top-line numbers of the Ryan Budget and showing that its deficit-reduction claims depend on historically unprecedented reductions in non-defense discretionary spending–the portions of the domestic budget that fall outside the big entitlement programs, where Ryan’s planned decimation of benefits for those living in poverty are reasonably specific, if rarely discussed.

To show the slippery nature of Ryan’s approach to non-defense discretionary spending, Edsall notes that the Romney campaign’s claims that programs affecting veterans would be protected simply makes the already massive pressure on everything else–education, environmental protection, transportation, food safety, etc.–even more intense. But so long as specificity is limited to the budget categories allegedly not being hammered, the GOP can continue to get away with the fiction that its plans somehow radically reduce spending while not affecting anything popular.

When you recall there is an even larger shell-game going on in the revenue side of the ledger in the Romney-Ryan budget proposals–rates come down, taxation on capital and on estates are slashed even more, yet revenues will rise because of unspecified cuts in tax expenditures that will mathematically have to come from those benefitting the poor and the middle-class–it begins to become obvious that the whole house of cards depends on misdirection and magic. The only things really clear in the GOP budget calculus is that top end and investment tax rates will drop; Medicaid and other elements of the social safety net for the poor will be shredded and/or dumped on the states; Medicare will be restructured in a way that virtually guarantees exposure of seniors to much higher out-of-pocket costs; and then either deficits rise dramatically or portions of the budget that involve much of what government actually does other than fighting wars and mailing checks will take a real dive beyond anything that has been explicitly discussed outside the Tea Party Movement.

It will be interesting to see if Democrats (especially Barack Obama in the presidential debates) are capable of penetrating the fog and challenging the magic and making GOP plans more transparent. If they are, then the already-unpopular Ryan Budget which a united Republican government could be expected to move to implement quickly via reconciliation might become toxic.

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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.