Nothing like Paul Ryan's budget, "The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America's Promise," has been heard from a Republican since February 1981, when Ronald Reagan issued his presidency's first budget message, "America's New Beginning: A Program for Economic Recovery." The echoes reach beyond the titles.
Both budgets announced a clear break with the Washington status quo. Reagan reversed the policies of the Carter presidency and the infamous stagflation years of weak economic growth, 18% interest rates and 14% inflation. Reagan's 1981 message posited four reversals: "a substantial reduction" in spending; "a significant reduction in federal tax rates"; relief from federal regulation; and "a monetary policy consistent with those policies."
In our day, the problems are the entitlement-spending time bombs and the twin killers of low growth and high unemployment. The Ryan budget proposes to defuse the Medicare and Medicaid bombs, while, like Reagan, overhauling the tax system to "unleash the genius of America's workers, investors and entrepreneurs."
Paul Ryan is routinely described as wonkish, a policy-detail guy short on political reality. But nervous Republicans need to understand that Reagan's political relevance to the Ryan budget, and to the 2012 presidential campaigns pulling away from the curb, is deeper than these details.
Ronald Reagan was not a nag. Reagan offered the politics of possibility, not the politics of impending doom.
"The goal of this administration is to nurture the vitality of the people."
Democrats and Republicans in recent years have both taken to preaching to us every Sunday morning about looming damnation from debt and deficits—even as they made both bigger. Hypocrisy aside, they are right. On its current path, spending on Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid will turn us into a nation of vampires, feeding off each other to stay alive.
However true and awful this prospect, "Repent!" has no history as the road to the White House. People don't want to vote for the king of hell. They want a president able to lead the United States forward and upward. Reagan was a compulsive optimist, an instinct often anathema in oh-so-serious Washington.
No presidential campaign commercial has been more ridiculed by pundits and the press than Ronald Reagan's in 1984, "It's morning in America, again." Running against what was mocked as Reagan's "gauzy" America was the Democratic scold, Walter Mondale. Reagan carried 49 states with a 58% majority; Mr. Mondale carried his home state of Minnesota (by a whisker).
To win and run the country, promising voters the eternal brimstone of deficit reduction isn't enough—and Paul Ryan knows it, just as Ronald Reagan knew it at another time of economic crisis.
Thus Reagan in his 1981 budget message: "The motivation and incentive of our people—to supply new goods and services and earn additional income for their families—are the most precious resources of our nation's economy. The goal of this administration is to nurture the strength and vitality of the American people."
Paul Ryan, in his budget's introduction: "Decline is antithetical to the American Idea. America is a nation conceived in liberty, dedicated to equality and defined by limitless opportunity. . . . This budget's goal is to keep it exceptional, and to preserve its promise for the next generation."
Paul Ryan's budget offers more than deficit brimstone.
One finds high Cs of optimism in every budget message (well, maybe not the Carter budgets). So, too, Barack Obama's initial February 2009 budget. But the Obama prescriptions reflected Democratic Party politics of our time, which insists that prosperity begins inside someone's head in Washington and then flows out to the country. The country is a taker of what Washington creates or allows—whether the Obama health-care plan or anti-carbon regulations. Reagan-Ryan argues that prosperity is born inside the heads of several hundred million citizens, and that the government's first responsibility is not to kill the yeast.
Both the Beltway Democrats and the conservative deficit hawks share the conceit that the nation's future revolves completely around what they do in Washington. This reduces the people to bystanders. That may work for Europe's parliamentary systems, but it's not the way things work here. Successful politics here draws people into its drama, and that means offering something bigger to believe in than deficit reduction. And guess what, progressives: The "safety net" isn't what moves a nation, either. Think bigger.
Barack Obama, with rhetoric alone, conveyed in 2008 that he was enlisting the whole nation to participate in his sweeping vision. He has not sustained the sweep or the vision. Instead, he withdrew into a truly wonkish world of Beltway-driven policy.
Paul Ryan's budget is inevitably about what Washington does (or refuses to do). But its underlying rationale is to reorder the relationship between Washington and the American people—country first, Washington behind. That notion is what November's startling tea party and independent vote for the GOP was about, and what the party's Senate and House freshmen appear to understand. Properly understood, this is the first presidential budget message of the new Republican Party.
There is a belief about that Ryan's budget is bucking the odds. Don't underestimate its appeal.