Conservative Policy Wonks Criticize Paul Ryan’s Budget

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is facing criticism for his new budget proposal from an unexpected source: conservative policy wonks.

Virtually all of them found something to like in his plan. But they voiced substantial critiques in three flavors: lament that the entitlement reforms don’t go far enough, arguments that Obamacare repeal and a 10-year balanced budget are not feasible, and worries that the plan fails to broaden the GOP’s reach among voters.

The criticisms reveal a divide between conservative thinkers, who are hungry for policy innovation in the Republican Party, and its top policy guru, who remains wedded to a set of ideas that served his party badly in the 2012 elections.James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute criticized Ryan for leaving Medicare untouched for the next decade and excluding any reforms to Social Security. He added that Ryan’s plan to cut the top tax rate to 25 percent, “like an Obamacare repeal, ain’t going to happen.” He argued that it’s “[b]etter to have shown how the ACA can be fixed.”

The AEI writer also posited that Ryan’s proposed deficit reduction — balancing the budget within 10 years — doesn’t need to be “quite as steep” because “[d]ebt reduction doesn’t require balance, just that the economy is growing faster than the debt.”

In a piece titled “The Ryan Budget’s Step Backward,” New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat lamented that the Ryan plan fails to offer “a real alternative to/replacement for the Obama health care bill.” Of Ryan’s vow to balance the budget within 10 years, Douthat retorts, “This is not going to happen, and more importantly there’s no reason why it needs to happen,” arguing that swift deficit reduction is less important than structural reforms.

Former Romney campaign adviser Avik Roy called out “a number of contradictions” in Ryan’s health care proposals. In a blog post for, he criticized the Wisconsinite for refusing to let up in his push to repeal Obamacare even as he assumes the law’s Medicare cuts and higher taxes and champions reforms that would convert Medicare into an Obamacare-like structure.

“[M]any conservatives have not yet reconciled themselves to the fact that Obamacare is here to stay,” Roy wrote.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation took issue with some of the fuzzy math in Ryan’s proposal. “[R]egrettably,” it said, “Ryan’s budget also relies on Obama’s $618 billion fiscal cliff tax increase and Obamacare’s $1 trillion in tax hikes … to get to balance.” Heritage also critiqued the Ryan plan for leaving Medicare and Social Security untouched for a decade.

The critiques come as Ryan and House GOP leaders are rounding up the votes to pass the budget through the chamber this week. They signal that conservative wonks, who for years have been protective of Ryan against liberals, are increasingly agitated with the party’s static policy positions on central issues.

“To those outside the House Republican bubble, meanwhile,” Douthat worried, “the biggest message that Ryan 3.0 sends is this: If the aftermath of 2012 produces fresh G.O.P. thinking on domestic policy, don’t expect it to start in the House.”

Ramesh Ponnuru, a columnist for National Review, pointed out that Ryan’s plan lacks specificity about how the tax reforms will be implemented. He concluded that the budget tries so hard to placate Republicans that it fails to expand the party’s reach when it badly needs it.

“This looks like a concession to the internal dynamics of the [Republican] conference,” he told Slate’s Dave Weigel. “It doesn’t make as much sense in the broader context of public opinion.”