Facing Fiscal Reality

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 10:16 AM EDT

David Brooks seems to have backed down a bit on his man-crush toward Paul Ryan, but still thinks he's performed a valuable service:

The Democrats are on defense because they are unwilling to ask voters to confront the implications of their choices. Democrats seem to believe that most Americans want to preserve the 20th-century welfare state programs. But they are unwilling to ask voters to pay for them, and they are unwilling to describe the tax increases that would be required to cover their exploding future costs.

Raising taxes on the rich will not do it. There aren’t enough rich people to generate the tens of trillions of dollars required to pay for Medicare, let alone all the other programs. Democrats, thus, face a fundamental choice. They can either reverse President Obama’s no-new-middle-class-taxes pledge, or they can learn to live with Paul Ryan’s version of government.

Until they find a way to pay for the programs they support, they will not be serious players in this game. They will have no credible plans and will be in an angry but permanent retreat.

Look, I won't pretend there's nothing to this. Still, unless I've been living for the past 30 years in that alternate universe where Spock sports a Van Dyke, I'm pretty sure I know which party has been unwilling to raise taxes. And the name of that party doesn't start with a D. What's more, I think Ron Brownstein has the more salient analysis anyway:

The sweeping budget blueprint that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., released this week marked the fifth time since 1980 that Republicans have followed an electoral breakthrough by attempting to restructure Medicare or Social Security.

[A bit of history follows]

....From this trail of wreckage, one lesson is clear: Restructuring entitlements without bipartisan support is a high-wire proposition....It’s even tougher to limit entitlements without bipartisan consensus....Ryan, discounting that history, has aimed his plan squarely at Republicans. Even though federal revenue, as a share of the economy, is at its lowest level since 1950, Ryan would attack the debt solely with spending reductions.

After five tries with Ryan's scorched-earth approach, I just don't see the supposedly bracing value of trying it yet again. We already know it won't work, we already know it's purely a base-pandering approach, and we already know that its most likely result isn't to force Democrats to the table, but to make compromise even harder. That strikes me as cowardly and partisan, not brave and farsighted.

So fine: if we want to solve Medicare's long-term problems, we're going to need a combination of smarter policies, reduced spending, and increased taxes. This is the admission that Brooks wants, and I'm happy to own up to it. But the truth is that liberal wonks have been owning up to this for years, and Democratic members of Congress are generally willing to own up to it as well — as long as they have some support from Republicans too. Does anyone really doubt that?

But of course they never get that support. It's Republicans, not Democrats, who tremble like small children before the terrifying gaze of Grover Norquist and are consistently unwilling to face fiscal realities. As soon as a few of them work up the courage to start tearing up those tax jihad pledges that Norquist has bullied them into signing over the years, then maybe we can talk. Until then, it's pretty clear which party is standing in the way of finding real solutions.