President Barack Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan are the only worthy and appropriate debaters on the future direction of the federal budget. Obama is the Democratic president; Ryan has been designated by Republicans as the architect of their budget and its plan for restraining the growth of government.
An Obama-Ryan debate wouldn’t be a one-on-one televised sit-down. Instead, they’d debate in speeches, interviews and news conferences over the spring and summer, defending their ideas and criticizing their opponent’s views. The media would cover them lavishly.
Ryan will do this, regardless of what the president does. But for Obama to debate Ryan, even from a distance, he would have to defy conventional wisdom. Presidents try to rise above squabbling in Congress, posturing as adults confronted with unruly children. After being overexposed in his first two years in the White House, Obama may conclude this strategy makes sense.
Obama has talked often about coming to grips with the soaring cost of entitlements. In February, he said financing Medicare and Medicaid creates “huge problems” that must be dealt with in “a serious way.” But his 2012 budget failed the seriousness test.
In contrast, the media praised Ryan while goading Obama. “The Wisconsin Republican has produced a plan to deal with the debt, which is more than his Democratic colleagues or President Obama can say,” The Washington Post editorialized. “Now it’s Obama’s turn,” The Boston Globe said.
It was no accident that Ryan fared so well. His budget, with its deep cuts and revolutionary reforms, might have frightened many House Republicans. But Ryan got critical help from House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who turned over his conference room in the Capitol for a series of lectures to the entire Republican caucus on the looming debt crisis and Ryan’s answer in his budget. When the budget committee approved the Ryan document, all 22 Republicans voted for it.
The biggest coup for Ryan was Democrat Erskine Bowles, the Obama-appointed co-chairman of the president’s debt commission. Bowles and his co-chairman, Republican Alan Simpson, lauded the Ryan budget as “a serious, honest, straightforward approach.” Compare this with their take on the Obama budget. “The president’s budget doesn’t go nearly far enough in addressing the nation’s fiscal challenges,” they said. “In fact, it goes nowhere close.”
While that was a blow to Obama, he would still have the commanding position in a debate with Ryan. He has the biggest megaphone and gets the most attention. The media, while critical of Obama’s budget, is largely on his side ideologically. Press attacks on Ryan are inevitable. Indeed, they’ve begun. Obama can change the subject and drag the media off with him.
But Ryan has significant advantages in a clash over spending, the deficit, debt, health care, taxes, economic growth and America’s future. His biggest asset is his in-depth knowledge of most of these subjects. I suspect he knows more about Obama’s budget and health care plan than the president does.
Ryan has the credibility that comes from being less politically motivated than the president. He’s not running for president, and has said so repeatedly and convincingly. He doesn’t have to answer to interest groups. And he’s steering the country in the direction it wants to go, though he’s probably doing it more aggressively than most Americans expected.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.