Political Hay

Grabbing the Third Rail

Are entitlements the paper tiger of American politics?

By 10.15.10

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Those who accept the idea that entitlement reform is the third rail of American politics should have to grapple with the rise of Rep. Paul Ryan.

In the past year, Ryan has drawn a lot of heat for his ambitious plan to confront our nation's looming entitlement crisis. Democrats from President Obama on down have eviscerated his "Roadmap for America's Future," arguing it would destroy Social Security and gut Medicare. Yet Ryan is expected to coast to victory, just as he has in every election since he first ran in favor of Social Security personal accounts twelve years ago. And his constituents aren't reflexively Republican. In fact, the Cook Political Report ranks his district as the 218th most Republican out of 435 Congressional districts, putting it smack in the middle.

"I think you can campaign and win on these issues -- I'm proof of that," Ryan told TAS in a phone interview on Wednesday. "My district went for Clinton, Dukakis, Gore and Obama, and I've campaigned on these issues, and I've won on these issues. And my reelection average is 64 percent."

At a time of national uproar over trillion dollar annual deficits and out of control spending, one would think that confronting the growth of entitlement programs would be a no-brainer for the party that purports to represent limited government philosophy. But Ryan's growing political fame is due in large part to the fact that he's still an outlier, the lone Republican with a plan to make America financially solvent.

When asked how entitlement reform is playing out in this year's midterm elections, Ryan laughed. "It's called mislead and scare is how it's playing out," he said. Ryan noted how Republicans throughout the nation have been blasted with attack ads claiming they want to destroy Social Security and tear benefits away from seniors.

"I don't see Republicans necessarily running for the hills away from entitlement reform, but I don't necessarily see them warmly embracing it, and that's because in the silly season we are in, they know they can't have an honest conversation about this," he said. "I've seen campaigns around the country that have totally embraced these ideas, and have stood up for them. And then there are some who basically fight back in different ways against Democratic opponents."

Ryan is being charitable to his fellow Republicans. In a year where Tea Party activists have swamped Republican primaries, the tendency among GOP candidates is either to avoid a discussion of entitlements, or, when attacked, respond by backing away from reform.

For instance, Sarah Palin endorsed Republican Paul Gosar in Arizona's 1st District, writing on Facebook that he "shares our belief that the federal government's reckless spending is putting us on a dangerous path towards insolvency -- and he's determined to do something about that." Yet here's what Gosar has to say about Social Security on his website: "In addition to opposing the privatization of Social Security, I believe the retirement age should not be raised."

Meanwhile, in Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, Republican candidate Scott Tipton has just run an ad in which he's surrounded by senior citizens and attacks John Salazar for cutting Medicare as part of his vote for the new national health care law. In the ad, Tipton vows, "I'll never put our seniors' future at risk. No cuts, no privatization, and no scaring our seniors just to try and win this election."

Tom Ganley, a Republican candidate for the seat in Ohio's 13th Congressional District, takes this stand: "My views on Social Security are simple. I believe the retirement age should remain the same, that taxes should not be increased to benefit the program, the program should not be privatized and above all, the program should be protected."

Even Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio, who has achieved conservative rock star status, has declared that the time for personal accounts has "come and gone" -- a position that at one time would have been grounds to brand him a RINO. (Though, in contrast to others, he has spoken of raising the retirement age.)

More broadly speaking, the widely hyped "Pledge to America" from House Republicans barely mentioned entitlements.

"The 'Pledge' was not meant to be a new party platform, or a comprehensive thing," Ryan says in defense of his fellow Republicans. "The concern in writing the pledge would be that we would over-promise and under-deliver. That we would make promises we can't keep given Obama is the president. And given that we'll have divided government at best. And so the prevailing concern was the need to be honest, and not to make promises we know we can't keep. Entitlement reform, the way we would do it, with Obama as president, is not possible over the next two years, and that's the reason why it wasn't in the 'Pledge' chief and foremost."

Ryan acknowledges that his desire for comprehensive entitlement reform is far from a consensus position, even within his own party. But his hope is that as a new crop of Republicans will come to Washington having survived Democratic demagoguery and that as a result they'll be more willing to confront the issue. That was his experience back in 1998, when he was elected for the first time along with Pat Toomey and Jim DeMint.

"We knew we could survive these assaults, and so we advocated these ideas in Congress," Ryan said. "It made us better and stronger and thicker skinned. You're going to have dozens of people like that in the next session of Congress, because they're running these ads against everybody, and dozens of these people are going to win their campaigns, and they are going to see that the bite is not that bad, or the bark is not that loud. And they're going to be battle-tested and seasoned in the next session. And so I think it's heading in the right direction."

That said, Ryan predicts that the real battle over these issues will be deferred until the presidential election.

"2010 is a proxy fight, or a shadow boxing match, to the real fight in 2012," Ryan said. "2012 is the fight for the soul of America. What kind of country do we want to be in the 21st century? Do we want to be a mediocre nation where we manage our decline like Western Europe, and we become a cradle to grave welfare society, or do we want to get the American idea back?"

But if there's any hope of having a real debate over entitlement reform -- whether now or two years from now -- at some point, more candidates will have to be willing to force a discussion on it.

"My experience in a very competitive district is if you just own up to it, defend your ideas, people are fine," Ryan said. "They're okay with it. They understand it. These things aren't the third rails they used to be."

Republicans may want to start considering whether in reality, entitlements are the paper tiger of American politics.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein