In poker a “tell” is the physical giveaway or tic that lets you know someone is lying about his or her hand. In politics it’s the mode of evasion a politician chooses to sidestep a truth he or she doesn’t want to admit or to avoid saying something against self-interest. In his debut interview with Fox News’ Brit Hume Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan’s “tells” were audacious and revealing. They suggest an opening Democrats would be wise to pursue.
Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to cloak himself in his supposedly charming “wonky-ness” to sidestep two simple questions from Hume: When does Mitt Romney’s budget reach balance, and when does Ryan’s own budget plan do the same? Ryan pirouetted because Hume’s queries threatened to expose his famed “fiscal conservatism” as a fraud.
It’s worth parsing Ryan’s tactics in this exchange because it shows the brand of disingenuousness we’re dealing with. So let’s go to the videotape. Have a look at the relevant two-minute portion of the clip (excerpted on this CNN video) and then we’ll dissect it.
Okay, you’re back. Hume started with a simple question: “The budget plan that you’re now supporting would get to balance when?”
Now, for context, recall that in the last era of epic budget smackdowns, 1995 and 1996, Newt Gingrich would have had an equally simple answer: in seven years. President Bill Clinton’s failure to embrace the goal of a balanced budget at all was a major political liability that Clinton finally (and shrewdly) erased when he came out with his own 10-year plan in mid-1995. (It’s worth underscoring that a 10-year path to balance was viewed then as the outer limit of credibility — pledging to end the red ink any further than a decade out didn’t pass the laugh test.)
Since Ryan knows that Romney’s bare sketch of a plan never reaches balance, he stumbles momentarily before trying to move the conversation to his comfortable talking points about Romney’s goal of reducing spending to historic norms as a share of gross domestic product.
But Hume grows quietly impatient. He practically cuts Ryan off.
“I get that,” Hume says. “But what about balance?”
You can see Ryan flinch. He doesn’t know, he says. Why not? “I don’t want to get wonky on you,” he says, recovering, “because we haven’t run the numbers on that specific plan.” But that’s not “getting wonky” at all. As common sense (and the Gingrich/Clinton approach) suggests, there’s nothing arcane about this subject. You decide on a sensible path to balance as a goal and come up with policies that achieve it. All this means is that Romney hasn’t done what a fiscally conservative leader would do. Trying to evade this as a matter of not “getting wonky” is Ryan’s tell. He’s betting Hume is too dumb, uninterested or short on time to press the point.
— Recognizing Paul Ryan’s ‘tell’when he is trying to avoid something, Matt Miller, Washington Post, today’s edition
Wow. Okay. That’s a much longer excerpt from someone else’s piece than I like to use, unbroken by my own commentary. And it doesn’t even include the real coup de grace of that column, the best I’ve read in a really long time. The column goes on recite further details of that interview:
“Your own budget . . . when does that contemplate reaching balance?” Hume asks.
There’s no exit. Not until the 2030s, Ryan finally admits, looking uncomfortable — but then he quickly adds, making a face, that’s only under the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring rules, implying that they’re silly constraints every Fox News viewer would agree are ridiculous (instead of sensible rules meant to credit politicians only for policy proposals that are real). Ryan adds that “we believe” if we get the economy growing, “it would balance in 10 years.” But that’s supply-side faith-based budgeting again — exactly what we ran an empirical test on in the 1980s. (And the truth is, if Ryan’s big tax cuts were properly accounted for, his plan’s real date of balance would push well beyond 2040).
And finally that promised coup de grace:
Why am I harping on this? Because it’s impossible to overstate how central the unjustified label of “fiscal conservative” is to the Ryan brand and the GOP’s strategy. As Clinton understood in the 1990s, “fiscal responsibility” is a values issue important to the voters who decide modern presidential elections.
The point: Democrats can’t afford to let Ryan/Romney’s phony image as superior fiscal stewards survive. And Hume’s interview shows how swiftly this charade can be exposed if Democrats and the press zero in on simple questions like Hume’s. If the press is primed to cover this more intelligently, such queries will also expose the big Republican lie — the idea that you can balance the budget as the baby boomers age without taxes rising.
Let me be clear. The most important issue facing the country isn’t when we’re going to balance the budget. It’s how to get growth and jobs reignited in the near term and how to renew the country’s promise and competitiveness after that (an agenda in which long-term budget sanity is just the ante). But if Democrats spend all their energy on Medicare — and don’t knock out the GOP ticket’s undeserved reputation for fiscal responsibility — they’ll find themselves in unexpected peril as the race heads to the fall.
In a lengthypost I wrote on Wednesday I expressed my own fear of the danger to Obama and the other Democrats of an all-Medicare-all-the-time campaign focus, because it removes the emphasis on the dramatic income tax reductions for the wealthy and therefore on the radical reduction of tax revenue—which, among other things, surely would require a substantial reduction in Medicare benefits to current and imminent beneficiaries, despite Romney/Ryan’s protestations to the contrary. Here’s how I ended that Wednesday post:
A lot of eyebrows were raised on Sunday when Ryan, sitting next to Romney in an interview, told Bob Schieffer that he wants to end the tax breaks that apply only to the wealthy. That’s nice, but of no effect. A seminal part of his tax-and-budget plan, passed this year by the House, is the elimination of all income taxes on capital gains and dividends. And although this would mean that many very wealthy people will pay no income taxes or estate taxes, and many other very wealthy people would pay income taxes at a single-digit rate, the elimination of these taxes would apply as well to the non-wealthy who have a capital gain or receive stock dividends, however small. And so—voila!—Ryan’s statement, made with such earnestness, does not apply to the issue of taxes on capital gains and dividends. Nor, for that matter, to estate taxes, which his plan entirely eliminates; some non-wealthy people leave small estates, after all. And semantics is the name of their game, the objective of which is the enabling of ever more vast accumulations of wealth, utterly unfettered by tax obligations. Pure and simple.
My big fear about the all-Medicare-all-the-time campaign that began last weekend with Romney’s Ryan announcement is that it allows Romney and Ryan to claim the mantle of straight talkers about what they warn is a Medicare-caused fiscal calamity that awaits. They have yet to explain why, if they fear such a calamity, they propose to reduce federal revenue by trillions of dollars, through their tax-elimination-on-the-wealthy plan. And when they stress, as they do again and again, that their destroy-Medicare-in-order-to-save-it plan will not end the current program for its current or relatively-imminent recipients (those who are 55 or older), maybe they’ll deign to reveal what programs will be eliminated in order to pay for Medicare for current recipients and baby boomers and—and—the trillions-of-dollars tax cuts for the wealthy.
My suggestion: Hurricane disaster relief for the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, which will vote for this ticket en force, and crop insurance and drought disaster relief for the plains states, which will vote for them and their budget plan in almost as large percentages.
In 2005, Ryan now-famously advised his audience when he addressed an Ayn Rand fan club that they should make no mistake: current politics is a clash between “individualism” and “collectivism.” And indeed it is.
Now, let’s ensure that the public knows the specifics.
After all, for all the indignant denials Romney has made about Harry Reid’s allegation that Romney paid no income taxes for a period of at least 10 consecutive years, Ryan’s plan—the plan being the one that Romney adopted all the way back last winter, during the primary season; the drafter being the person whom Romney has chosen to be a heartbeat away from the actual presidency has made —would enable Romney to openly pay no taxes on most of his income for the next ten years and beyond.