Donald Dossier: The Ghost of Paul Ryan - OZY | A Modern Media Company
SourceGetty Images / Composite by Sean Culligan/OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Medicare and Social Security could decide the election.

By Daniel Malloy

From the oratory of Rep. Adam Schiff to the possibility of additional witnesses to President Donald Trump’s inevitable acquittal, the constant question hanging over the Senate impeachment trial is how this all will shape November. What goes down the memory hole of our fast-twitch media environment, or merely adds another log to the fire of partisan recrimination that is expected to fuel enormous turnout? What lingers, in spite of it all?

Trump might have given us the answer last week by raising a GOP spirit from another time: Paul Ryan.

Trump and Ryan were like oil and water four years ago. The former vice presidential nominee and then-House Speaker found Trump repugnant and didn’t mind saying so … until Trump’s nomination forced Ryan to mostly clam up, and Trump’s victory forced a shotgun marriage to lead an all-Republican government. The principal achievement of that partnership: a landmark tax cut. The big flop: a failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The untouched third rail: entitlement reform.

Ryan made his career in Washington as a proponent of the idea that the national debt is on an unsustainable course that will lead to financial ruin unless we rein in spending on so-called entitlements — Medicare and Social Security in particular. His plan to turn Medicare into a voucherlike system proved hugely controversial. He could never even get Republican unanimity on the idea, and when Mitt Romney elevated him as a running mate in 2012, Barack Obama’s team could barely contain their glee as they bashed the Republican ticket as wanting to push grandma off the cliff.

In the eight years since, fiscal responsibility has become even less popular as an aging America’s long-term fiscal health looks ever more dire. Trump ran on an explicit pledge not to touch entitlements. He was able to draw masses of less-educated and lower-income White voters off the sidelines and away from Democrats with the vow that he’d fight for their interests, not slash these popular programs. (At the same time, Trump has had no problem cutting programs for low-income people such as food stamps and Medicaid.)

But in an interview with CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos — a plutocrat double whammy in channel and location — Trump was asked if reforming entitlements would ever be on his agenda. He replied: “At some point they will be,” indicating that at the end of this year he’d start taking a look at it. He said, given strong economic growth, reining in entitlements is “actually the easiest of all things.” 

Democrats pounced. Combating Trump’s outrageous behavior has long been a political conundrum, but Dems know how to execute the granny-cliff move. Priorities USA, a Democrat-aligned super PAC that’s pledged to spend $150 million on ads from now through the summer, quickly released a memo saying: “Trump’s position on cutting Social Security and Medicare will be featured in far more ads this year than the fact that he has been impeached.”

But what is his position, exactly? Trump can be an agreeable interviewee, and he loves to say he’s “looking at” things. The Washington Post found he follows through about half the time on policy when he uses that phrase.

And Trump has never been confused with a fiscal conservative. The deficit has doubled under his watch, to nearly $1 trillion last year, even as the economy is going gangbusters. In general, Trump knows cutting taxes and amping up spending is popular. He certainly would not campaign on cutting or privatizing Social Security or Medicare, even if the leaders and donors in his party remain eager to do so.

His “at some point they will be” line doesn’t have much zing as an attack ad, but the Democrats surely will tee up some scary music with it. And the issue is far more potent than “Do us a favor,” from Trump’s call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, or his reported “Take her out” declaration to Rudy Giuliani’s henchmen about Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

Democrats won 2018 on health care, not Robert Mueller. Their path to victory in 2020 may well run through the Ryan plan, not Ukraine. And Trump knows it.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories