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Mmmm, More Kool-Aid

[Guest post by James Downie]

Ramesh Ponnuru takes issue with the quotes Jon had me find:

Jonathan Chait can’t find a quote that illustrates the point he wants to make. He has 11 quotes, but not one is on point. So, for example, he has James Capretta saying that Paul Ryan’s ideas are “far safer politically” than they used to be. But as I pointed out in the very post to which Chait is responding, that doesn’t mean Republican officialdom thought that Medicare reform would be popular with the public and is now shocked to find out it isn’t.

I'm duty-bound to defend my honor as a researcher, but, to be honest, I’m somewhat confused as to what point the quotes aren’t on. Statements like:

“There is a belief about that Ryan's budget is bucking the odds. Don't underestimate its appeal. That's been done before.”


“[W]hen a description accurately summarizes the Republican proposal, people seem to like it.”

clearly suggest that prominent conservatives thought that Medicare reform would be popular with the public. Now, perhaps the point Ponnuru thinks I missed was that such quotes from pundits don’t prove Republican politicians (“officialdom”) made the same mistake. If so, that’s an odd distinction to suddenly make, given that, in the post to which Chait responded (which Ponnuru cites), he wrote, “In all that time [debating the politics of Medicare], nobody on the other side of the debate — no writers, think tankers, congressional staffers, congressmen [bolding mine - JD] — told me that I was wrong because Medicare reform was going to be popular.” And to pretend that Republican congressmen somehow live in a completely separate intellectual and political universe that does not overlap with the thinking at the Journal, The Weekly Standard, AEI, and so on is no less silly than believing that the White House isn’t talking to liberal think tanks and pundits.

Still, even if we limit the debate to what Republican politicians thought, the evidence stands up. A few examples, starting with Senator Mike Johanns, interviewed on MSNBC:

For those that worry about Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security, I remind them that 42 cents of every dollar is borrowed today and that's not sustainable. Those plans are in trouble today because spending is out of control. We've got to do something to get this back on track…Overwhelmingly, the voters of Nebraska are saying to me, cut the spending. It's that straightforward. And they're ready to make some sacrifices to get that done. And I think that's what this election cycle is all about. It was last time; I don't think it's going to change at all this time.

Congressman Jeb Hensarling, speaking to journalists in late January:

JOSH GREEN: Do you expect that idea of converting Medicare into a voucher for younger workers to be part of the Republican budget alternative this year?
And do you -- and do you think the caucus will go along with it again?
REP. HENSARLING: I hope so and yes, if I got the order of the questions -- yes.

Governor Bob McDonnell, interviewed by Byron York:

I think Medicare -- we're doing everything from looking at reducing certain benefits, changing eligibility and ages and things of that -- and age and some of those things that I understand are contained in components of the Ryan budget are a start.
But I really think -- and this goes to the heart of your first question -- I think Americans at this point in time are ready for straight talk and an honest -- (audio break) -- one is, most Americans the last couple of years are doing it with their families and their businesses. They realize they can't keep spending the way they've been spending, whether it's their credit card debt, whether it's because somebody's lost a job in the family, whether it's because the business contraction is such that access to capital's reduced, and so they've had to make a lot tougher decisions about the business. They've -- people have been doing that. So they expect the government to do it too.

Senator John Barasso, interviewed on MSNBC:

Medicare, we know that the president's health care law cut $500 billion from our seniors on Medicare, not to save Medicare, but to start a whole new government program. But the fundamentals are that we're at $14 trillion in debt. We owe more and more to foreign countries. And we need to make sure that we pass on to the next generation, to our kids and grandkids, a country without this kind of a debt… We don't need more revenue. The American people aren't worried that they're taxed too little, it's that we spend too much.

Congressman Joe Walsh, interviewed on MSNBC:

[A]gain, with this budget, I give Paul Ryan all the credit in the world. He took a courageous step right now. He said we have to reform these programs to save them. And all of a sudden, the president pokes his head out of the woods again. He's not leading in this debate; he's following. But that's fine. You know, the American people want us to lead.

John Boehner, April 14 press conference:

Q: Speaker Boehner, today is your 100th day as speaker. Congratulations. I was wondering --
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Thanks for reminding me. (Laughter.)
Q: I was wondering if you could give us an assessment of how you've done these first hundred days, how Republicans have done holding the House; and if you had to grade yourself, what grade would you give yourself?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I think -- I think we've done fine. But I think the biggest accomplishment of the first 100 days of our majority is this. The spending debate in Washington has turned to 180 degrees…[T]he debate that will start later on today, continue tomorrow, on the long-term crisis and making sure that we save programs like Medicare and Medicaid, this debate has really shifted 180 degrees.
So I really do believe that this shift in debate is the biggest accomplishment we've made thus far.

Boehner again, April 15 press conference:

Q: Speaker Boehner, are you concerned about the political consequences of today's vote for your members who, say, represent a lot of seniors? And -- (off mic) -- polls, seniors said they're not for changes to Medicare.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I think it's important for our members to go home and talk about the crisis that we face, and the fact that the changes being proposed would not affect one senior citizen in America -- not one -- because Paul's made it perfectly clear that anyone who's 55 years and older will not be affected by any of these changes. But if you're 54 and younger, those Americans understand if we don't make changes, the programs won't be there.

And from Chait’s post (quote #4, for those who are interested), here’s Paul Ryan himself, from a February 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal:

People want conviction politicians. People want the problem solved. People turn on their TV, they see the European debt crisis. They see California, New York, Illinois. They understand there is a sovereign debt crisis popping all over the place. And to see a president duck and punt, and then try to use it as a political wedge against the opposing party to manipulate his re-election is not going to fly in this kind of climate.