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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Paul Ryan\'s Debate Challenge


Long before he was anointed Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul D. Ryan was the young hero of Washington's supply-side crowd. And so it will be interesting to see how Mr. Ryan, in his debate with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday, plans to navigate between his running mate's latest ideological turn, on one hand, and the orthodoxy of economic conservatives on the other.

In a late and frantic dash to the center, Mr. Romney argued for the first time in last week's debate that his plan to scale back income tax rates for the wealthy didn't really add up to a tax cut. This surprising parry seemed to leave the president at a loss for words, as if Mr. Romney had just asserted that nuclear warheads weren't a ctually weapons.

Afterward, most of the commentary centered on the immediate question of whether Mr. Romney's plan would add some $5 trillion to the deficit, as Mr. Obama claimed, or whether Mr. Romney could make the plan “revenue-neutral.” But Mr. Romney's argument was remarkable for larger, philosophical reasons, and it presents something of a dilemma for Mr. Ryan as he considers his own debate strategy.

First, it should be noted that by backing away from the idea of tax cuts, Mr. Romney seemed to be acknowledging a dramatic shift in the politics of the issue. At least since 1984, when Walter Mondale announced he was going to level with the American people about his plan to raise taxes and walked away with a whopping 13 electoral votes, Democrats have been on the defensive over taxes, and Republicans have been pressing the advantage. In campaign after campaign, Republican candidates vowed to lower taxes (mostly for the wealthy), while Democrats strove to pe rsuade voters they weren't going to raise them.

In Denver, however, it was the Republican who found himself backing away from party orthodoxy. Here was Mr. Romney fleeing from the suggestion that he supported tax cuts for the wealthy, when by any reasonable definition he did. And here was the Democratic president, insisting that he was against those same tax cuts, even though he could fairly have taken credit for having extended them during his term.

This reversal by itself should bother the economic conservatives who believe that ever-lower taxes are a prerequisite for growth. But Mr. Romney didn't simply distance himself from conservatives on the politics of taxation. By any literal reading of what he said, Mr. Romney broke with conservatives on the substance of their argument, too.

From the Reagan era until now, conservatives have traveled a path from being anti-tax to anti-government. In other words, their main conviction n ow isn't simply that tax rates are too high, but that government gets too much in revenue, and that the only way to stimulate growth is to “starve the beast” of the federal bureaucracy and force government to reduce its commitments.

Another important tenet of economic conservatism holds that the wealthy Americans already pay more than their fair share of taxes, as a percentage of the total, while too many Americans pay close to nothing. And conservative tax activists like Grover Norquist contend that rescinding some expensive “tax expenditures” - like, say, the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners or some industry subsidies - would amount to tax increases on the average American.

At last week's debate, however, Mr. Romney could not have been clearer in rejecting all of these premises. “I'm not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the revenues going to the government,” Mr. Romney said flatly. He added that he would not reduce the tax burden born by wealthy Americans. And he promised to eliminate unspecified tax expenditures.

In short, Romney now seems to be pretty much where John A. Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, was in his budget negotiations with Mr. Obama last year. Mr. Boehner actually entertained an offer that would have added as much as $1.4 trillion over ten years in additional revenue. (Although, like Mr. Romney, Mr. Boehner was assuming that a lot of that additional revenue would come from the supply-side alchemy of lower tax rates spurring economic growth).

But that's not where Mr. Ryan or the other conservatives in the House are, which is why Mr. Boehner's gambit ultimately went nowhere with his own caucus. They favor less revenue for government, not more, and they oppose a more progressive tax code that would heap even more of the overall burden on the wealthiest Americans.

Perhaps Republican activists weren't listening very hard to what Mr. Romney was actually sayi ng last week; their attitude seems to be that he won the debate and climbed in the polls, and that's all that matters. But you can bet that Mr. Ryan's admirers in the policy world took note of Mr. Romney's moderate rhetoric, which sounded a lot like the “big-government conservatism” they sometimes deride.

Mr. Ryan will almost certainly be asked to elaborate on the tax plan at Thursday's debate. And the question is whether he can get fully behind Mr. Romney's pronouncements about not lowering taxes on the rich and holding the line on federal revenue, or whether he will try to subtly walk it back, so as not to tarnish his brand as the keeper of the conservative faith.

The answer may tell us something about whether Mr. Ryan is thinking only about this election, or whether he also has his mind on carrying the conservative mantle for years to come.