Coburn: The Truth About Ryan and His Critics


First Obama rejected the ‘grand bargain’ of his own Bowles-Simpson commission. Then he turned around and ridiculed the Wisconsin congressman’s comprehensive alternative.

The more voters learn about Congressman Paul Ryan’s leadership style and his thoughtful and creative approach to solving problems, the more they will decide that the Romney-Ryan ticket looks presidential and electable. That’s why there has been a coordinated effort in recent days to ramp up not just the “Mediscare” rhetoric against Mr. Ryan, but to depict him as a partisan ideologue who was instrumental in derailing a grand bargain on the deficit. This line of attack is cynical and, most of all, false.

First, Paul Ryan didn’t force President Obama to abandon the budget recommendations of his own 2010 deficit commission, known as Bowles-Simpson. Mr. Obama’s decision to punt on deficit reduction—and then to ridicule Mr. Ryan’s plan to address the deficit—offended and disappointed Republicans and Democrats alike.

For example, Erskine Bowles, President Clinton’s former chief of staff and the co-chairman of the Bowles-Simpson commission, described the Ryan budget that passed the House in March as “sensible, straightforward, honest, [and] serious.” About President’s Obama’s budget, which failed in the Senate in May by a vote of 97 to zero, Mr. Bowles said, “I don’t think anybody took that budget very seriously.”

Second, even though I served on the president’s debt commission and supported its recommendations, I recognize that we already have a debt commission. It’s called Congress. No one in Congress has done more to offer specific solutions to our fiscal challenges than Paul Ryan. He also has demonstrated the rarest and most important trait in politics—moral courage.

What he has been missing is a willing partner in the White House and Senate. At any point in the past four years, President Obama could have called Republicans John Boehner, now House speaker, and Rep. Ryan, now House Budget Committee chairman, over to the White House and cut a budget deal. The president doesn’t have to wait for a crisis, such as a debt-limit vote or a fiscal cliff. Attacking Mr. Ryan for not carrying his weight is like Britain’s prewar-appeasement prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, accusing Winston Churchill of not being prepared for World War II.

Mr. Ryan’s public explanation for voting against Bowles-Simpson was the same one he told commission members at the time. A central objection was that by taking ObamaCare “off the table,” the commission put what everyone knew to be a fiscally flawed program off-limits. He was also troubled that the commission would not embrace structural entitlement reform.

As Mr. Ryan explained on “Meet the Press” on May 20: “Bowles-Simpson says reduce tax rates across the board by closing special-interest loopholes, which is what we say. The reason people like me didn’t support Bowles-Simpson, because it ignored health-care entitlements, the driver of our debt, and therefore we put up our alternatives. . . . That’s how you get the compromise. . . .

“You pass what you believe, then the Senate passes what they believe, then you compromise. That isn’t happening because the president and his party leaders in the Senate are refusing to do anything to address this debt crisis. What’s going to happen at the end of the year I think will largely be determined by who wins this election and this election is really going to be a great choice of two contrasting visions.”

Just as ludicrous as blaming Paul Ryan for Washington’s impasse is the assault against the Romney-Ryan ticket on Medicare. By picking Mr. Ryan, critics say, Gov. Romney is backing sweeping and radical changes to the health program for seniors. This line of attack will fail.

Voters understand that what is radical is not the Ryan plan but the status quo. If we do nothing to reform Medicare, it will go bankrupt and bring down the American economy. The left’s election-year war on math will not change our unsustainable fiscal outlook.

Medicare Part A—the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund—could run out of money within five years. The massive amount of borrowing necessary to keep the safety net intact will trigger a debt crisis (higher interest rates, inflation, lower standards of living and higher unemployment) sooner rather than later. That’s why, as former vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman said last year, “We can’t save Medicare as we know it. We can only save Medicare if we change it.”

Paul Ryan shares Mr. Lieberman’s view. He has drawn from the best ideas of Republicans and Democrats in order to preserve the safety net and prevent a debt crisis. For instance, he borrowed “premium support” from the Clinton administration’s Medicare Commission, chaired by Louisiana’s then-Democratic Sen. John Breaux. It employs a “same benefit, less cost” approach to reform by helping seniors shop and pay for health care with premium assistance from the federal government.

Mr. Ryan refined his premium-support concept with the help of Democrat Alice Rivlin, who worked in the Johnson and Clinton administrations. Ironically, Ms. Rivlin’s work with Mr. Ryan was more “moderate” than her 2010 proposal with former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, which implemented premium support on a faster timetable than the Ryan proposal.

Earlier this year, Mr. Ryan persuaded Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden to embrace fundamental entitlement reform. The Wyden-Ryan plan allows traditional Medicare to continue as an option alongside his premium-support model for those who want to choose their own level of insurance.

What is radical in 2012 is not Paul Ryan’s vision but the lengths to which his critics will go to avoid dealing with the national debt. By picking Mr. Ryan as his vice president, Mr. Romney has given America the debate it deserves, and a team that can succeed.

Dr. Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, served on the “Bowles-Simpson” National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He is the author of “The Debt Bomb” (Thomas Nelson, 2012).

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