For Republicans, the Road Map authored by congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is the most important proposal in domestic policy since Ronald Reagan embraced supply side economics in the 1980 presidential campaign. It’s not only the freshest, boldest, and most comprehensive Republican thinking, it’s also the most relevant. If Republicans adopt the Road Map as their basic ideological blueprint, it offers them the prospect of a landslide in the midterm election this year, followed by victory in the presidential election in 2012.
For sure, that’s a lot of weight for a policy statement drafted by a 40-year-old House member to bear. But the Road Map is perfectly timed to deal with the crises of the moment: economic stagnation, uncontrolled spending, the deficit and long-term debt, soaring tax rates, health care, the housing problem, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
Yet Republican leaders are wary of endorsing it, and for understandable reasons. The Road Map is sweeping and politically risky. It would overhaul popular programs like Medicare, relying on individuals to make decisions now made by government. Democrats are already attacking it. When Ryan delivered the weekly Republican radio address in late June, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put out a press release under the heading, “Republicans Make Key Advocate of Privatizing Social Security and Ending Medicare Their Spokesman on Budget.”
Democrats insist focus groups have rejected Ryan’s reform of Medicare. When swing voters learn Medicare would become “a voucher system . . . it has a massive impact,” Democratic strategist Robert Creamer wrote in the Huffington Post. “People like the Democratic program of Medicare.”
Republican leaders fear the Road Map might jeopardize, or at least minimize, what is expected to be a decisive Republican victory in the November midterm election. Their advantage in the congressional generic poll is at an all-time high, and President Obama’s approval rating has dropped to the mid-40s. Given these usually reliable indicators, why give Democrats a target to shoot at?
There are three reasons Republicans should ignore their jitters about the Road Map. The first is that the nation’s disenchantment with Obama and Democrats will take Republicans only so far. There’s a residue of bad feelings toward Republicans from the years the party ruled Congress, spent too much, and produced scandals.
Voters have memories. To overcome their qualms, Republicans need to provide more than a litany of Democratic faults. Voters are frightened about the future of the country. They’re looking for a serious solution to the mess we’re in. The Road Map offers exactly that, plus the opportunity to win more seats than Republicans are likely to capture solely by zinging Democrats.
The second reason should be obvious after the ignominious Republican defeat in May in the race for John Murtha’s old House seat in Pennsylvania. Democrat Mark Critz won by running to the right—against Washington, Obama, spending, the deficit —and Democratic candidates across the country are taking the same tack.
Republican candidates need to put some daylight between themselves and their Democratic opponents. The Road Map will do that. Democrats can’t endorse it for fear of alienating their liberal base, which loathes anything that reduces the size of government. The Road Map stamps Republican candidates as the real conservatives, which is what voters happen to be looking for in 2010.
The third reason is the Republican message (or the absence of one). In Pennsylvania, it was “send a message to Nancy Pelosi.” Voters declined. I like the Republican slogan that worked so well in 1946—“Had enough?” But a slogan is not a message. The Road Map is a message. The country is falling apart, we’re going broke, government is on a takeover binge, the economy is wobbling. The Road Map is the solution. That’s a pretty good message.
Those who tremble at the thought of pushing a big idea should remember the campaign of 1980. Reagan, who for years had warned of the evils of government spending and overreach, suddenly became the champion of an across the board, 30 percent cut in tax rates for individuals and business.
That was very risky. The elder George Bush called it “voodoo economics.” Democrats were certain the whopping tax cut would turn the country against Reagan. Quite the opposite occurred. Reagan would have defeated Jimmy Carter without it, but not by the 10 percentage points he actually won by. The tax cut showed Reagan was serious about reviving the economy and not at all a weakling like Carter.
In 1994, the Contract With America wasn’t as risky. It wasn’t a big idea either, but a collection of smaller ones. Democrats, however, believed it would doom Republican chances of a substantial victory. It didn’t. It can’t be proved, but I think the Contract enlarged the Republican landslide.
For now, the Road Map has a relatively small but growing cheering section. A dozen House members have endorsed it. Senator Jim DeMint praised it in his book Saving Freedom. Jeb Bush likes it. On CNN last week, economic historian Niall Ferguson called Ryan “a serious thinker on the Republican right who’s prepared to grapple with these issues of fiscal sustainability and come up with a plan.”
Ferguson sees the Road Map as “radical fiscal reform,” which it is, and said Washington should recognize it as the alternative to “the Keynesian option,” which Washington doesn’t. “I’m depressed how few people in Washington are prepared to talk about” the Road Map option, he said.
Ryan isn’t depressed. “As soon as people become informed and know the details, the more they like it,” he told me. He says the Road Map is “based on a fundamentally different vision” from the “government-centered ideology now prevailing in Washington . . . and restores an American character rooted in individual initiative, entrepreneurship, and opportunity.”
The full plan—“A Road Map for America’s Future”—is outlined in a formidable, 87-page document. It would give everyone a refundable tax credit to buy health insurance, allow individual investment accounts to be carved out of Social Security, reduce the six income tax rates to two (10 and 25 percent), and replace the corporate tax (35 percent) with a business consumption tax (8.5 percent). And that’s not the half of it.
As ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, Ryan was able to get the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to run the numbers in his plan. CBO concluded the plan would “make the Social Security and Medicare programs permanently solvent [and] lift the growing debt burden on future generations, and hold federal taxes to no higher than 19 percent of GDP.” Pretty impressive results, I’d say.
The Road Map does one more thing. It would give Republicans an agenda if they gain control of the House or Senate in the midterm election—or a mandate if they win both. “What’s the point of winning an election if you don’t have a mandate?” Ryan asks.
He doesn’t expect a mandate in 2010. “I need to make sure these ideas survive this election,” he says, and set the stage for “the most ideological, sea-changing election in our lifetime” in 2012. Merely survive in 2010? The Road Map can do better than that. How about thrive?
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.