[Y]ou have to look at Paul Ryan’s record over the last few years in the context of where his party stood after the 2008 election — moribund, deluded, and potentially self-destructive — and recognize 1) how much he’s done to move the Republicans in a more constructive direction and 2) that many of the problems with his famous/infamous House budgets reflect his party’s continuing deficiencies rather than his own."Deluded and potentially self-destructive." Yes. But about what? In what way? Actually, Douthat was pretty good about that in the original column, saying that the danger after 2008 was that Republicans "would demagogue every Democratic proposal, decline to offer any alternative on any issue, and seal themselves inside a fantasy world where tax cuts always pay for themselves and budgets can be balanced by cutting funding for NPR."
Douthat's case for Ryan is that in that atmosphere, a reasonable, sane, wonkish conservative has to pick his fights.
But the problem is that to whatever extent Ryan has been courageous and a truth-teller, it's been pushing Republicans to...reform Medicare. And while that's perhaps a conservative goal that many Republican politicians might be hesitant to act on, it's not really related to the real pathologies that plague Republicans. Especially on budget, which is the area where Ryan has set himself up as the GOP maven.
What's wrong with the GOP on budgets?
Supply side fantasies, insisting that all tax cuts raise revenues. Paul Ryan's position? In his budgets, absolutely irresponsible, depending on a magic asterisk...and supply-side effects. In other words, Ryan has used his reputation for expertise to validate the GOP pathology, not to nudge it towards reality.
"Budgets can be balanced by cutting funding for NPR?" This one is trickier, because I'm sure Douthat counts this one in Ryan's favor for addressing Medicare. But the problem is that Ryan still won't push Republicans to cut programs that they like; it's all about cuts to programs that Democrats like, such as Medicaid. The truth is that Republicans don't need Ryan to convince them to cut Medicaid or, for that matter, Medicare; they tried to do that in the mid-1990s before Ryan was in Congress, and they did it in the Reagan years, too. The truth is that the budget will never be balanced just by cutting things that Republicans don't like, at least not if they simultaneously insist on deep tax cuts.
And that gets to the next point, that they would "demagogue every Democratic proposal." And here, as some conservative commentators have pointed out, the GOP decision to attack the ACA mainly because it Medicare spending is particularly harmful to any long-term conservative plans to attack the program. Ryan has been totally on board with that.
More generally, Ryan was a leader of the budgetary case against ACA. There were indeed some legitimate criticisms (the CLASS Act, for example), but the bottom line was that ACA was indeed fiscally responsible. And yet Ryan was the lead Republican in calling ACA a budget-buster, and he even repeated many of the flat-out myths about it, including the 10/6 myth.
Of course, there's another problem with Douthat's case. If you think that bipartisan budget-balancing is important then you really have to talk about Ryan's central role in keeping the Simpson-Bowles group from succeeding; had Ryan chosen to support a plan, it almost certainly would at least have been approved by the commission, and would have in my view at least have had an excellent chance of being adopted by Congress and signed into law. Granted: that would really have forced him to take on important interests and people within his own party, in a way that fantasizing about ending traditional Medicare and Social Security don't do. And because he wasn't willing and really has never been willing to do that, Douthat's case for Ryan just won't hold up.