"The Tea Party Itch Has Not Been Scratched" -- How the Ryan Plan Went Down
May 23, 2011 - 2:57pm ET
Any political observer with even a modicum of sense could see that the Ryan Plan was going to be a complete disaster. And most of us have been wondering ever since what the hell made them go for it. Politico has a fascinating inside story today which says that they were warned --- but they went ahead anyway:
It’s been more than a month since Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) boldly positioned their party as a beacon of fiscal responsibility — a move many have praised as principled, if risky. In the process, however, they raced through political red lights to pass Ryan’s controversial measure in a deceptively unified 235-193 vote, with only four GOP dissenters.
The story of how it passed so quickly — with a minimum of public hand-wringing and a frenzy of backroom machinations — is a tale of colliding principles and power politics set against the backdrop of a fickle and anxious electorate.
The outward unity projected by House Republicans masked weeks of fierce debate, even infighting, and doubt over a measure that stands virtually no chance of becoming law. In a series of heated closed-door exchanges, dissenters, led by Ryan’s main internal rival — House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) — argued for a less radical, more bipartisan approach, GOP staffers say.
At a fundraiser shortly after the vote, a frustrated Camp groused, “We shouldn’t have done it” and that he was “overridden,” according to a person in attendance.
A few days earlier, as most Republicans remained mute during a GOP conference meeting on the Ryan plan, Camp rose and drily asserted, “People in my district like Medicare,” one lawmaker, who is now having his own doubts about voting yes, told POLITICO.
At the same time, GOP pollsters, political consultants and House and NRCC staffers vividly reminded leadership that their members were being forced to walk the plank for a piece of quixotic legislation. They described for leadership the horrors that might be visited on the party during the next campaign, comparing it time and again with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to ram through a cap-and-trade bill despite the risks it posed to Democratic incumbents.
“The tea party itch has definitely not been scratched, so the voices who were saying, ‘Let’s do this in a way that’s politically survivable,’ got drowned out by a kind of panic,” a top GOP consultant involved in the debate said, on condition of anonymity.
“The feeling among leadership was, we have to be true to the people who put us here. We don’t know what to do, but it has to be bold.”
Another GOP insider involved to the process was more morbid: “Jumping off a bridge is bold, too.”
For "beacons of responsibility" they sure put out a crappy plan. That's one of the problems that Politico fails to address — the plan itself was debunked over the course of the first week and Ryan's reputation for seriousness and "brio" took a major hit.
The article goes on to describe how the GOP believes they just have a messaging problem. (uhm no.) And there are some choice quotes from head-scratching Democrats wondering what in the hell came of the Republicans. If this article is correct, it is a leadership problem.
Cantor caught Hill reporters by surprise when he said, nonchalantly, that the Republican budget would be a “serious document that will reflect the type of path we feel we should be taking to address the fiscal situation, including addressing entitlement reforms.”
But there were also internal motivations in the decision to go big on Medicare, rooted in Boehner’s still tenuous grasp of the leadership reins, according to a dozen party operatives and Hill staffers interviewed by POLITICO.
Republican sources said Boehner, who has struggled to control his rambunctious new majority, needed to send a message to conservative upstarts that he was serious about bold fiscal reform — especially after some of the 63 freshmen rebelled against his 2011 budget deal that averted a government shutdown.
Then there’s the ever-present friction between Boehner and Cantor, who, along with Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), has positioned himself as the next generation of GOP leadership and champion of the conservative freshman class.
Boehner’s camp said the speaker has always supported the Ryan approach — which would offer vouchers to future Medicare recipients currently younger than 55 in lieu of direct federal subsidies — and proved his support by voting for a similar measure in 2009.
“Boehner has said for years, including leading up to the 2010 election, that we would honestly deal with the big challenges facing our country,” said his spokesman, Michael Steel. “With 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, it is clear to everyone that Medicare will not be there for future generations unless it is reformed. The status quo means bankruptcy and deep benefit cuts for seniors. It’s clear who the real grown-ups in the room are. We’ve told the truth and led, while the Democrats who run Washington have cravenly scrambled and lied for partisan gain.”
Still, even if Boehner had opposed the plan — and his top aide, Barry Jackson, expressed concerns about the political fallout to other staffers — he probably couldn’t have stopped the Ryan Express anyway, so great was the push from freshmen and conservatives.
Ok, I get it. The freshman all came in high on power, believing that they had a mandate to ruthlessly slash government spending. But how hard would it have been for Boehner to point out that they'd just won their seats because they'd convinced a bunch of elderly people that Obama was trying to kill them by destroying Medicare? Oh, and by the way, if they want to stay in office they'd need those elderly people to vote for them again?
Boehner's freshmen are a handful, no doubt about it. But it's his job to manage that and he made a mistake with this one. He allowed them to alienate seniors, the one group they desperately need to keep if they are to be competitive. He sets the agenda and he should have chosen something far less politically damaging to feed to his slavering freshman vultures. It shouldn't be hard. They hate everything about government. They couldn't find something other than the government's most popular programs right out of the gate?
The article says they are trying to figure out how to save the situation. They clearly haven't done so. Last week they forced Newt Gingrich to grovel and squirm for days for insulting their plan and former Tea Party dreamboat Scott Brown twisted himself into a pretzel finally deciding today that he wasn't going to support it, writing:
"The sooner Congress addresses this, the less painful it is likely to be — but more difficult adjustments will be required if we delay," he wrote. "We should start by making improvements to the traditional Medicare plan."
(I can just hear Newt whining, "How come he gets to say that?")
This is a huge political problem for the GOP. It could fade if the Democrats allow them to take it off the table. (The Politico article says that Joe Biden's bi-partisan group may do that, but it's hard to see how they can unless Democrats are total fools. Oh wait ...) But there's nobody to blame except for Boehner, Cantor and Paul Ryan for this mess. And I have a sneaking suspicion that they'll pay for it with their jobs. The Democrats may be fools, but the Republicans are ruthless when their leadership fails them. Just ask Newtie. He knows all about it.
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