What does courage look like in an elected official? A couple
things come to mind:

  • Honesty:
    speaking the truth even when it's unpleasant or inconvenient
  • Principled
    confrontation: refusing to shrink from a serious and forthright debate when the
    real-world stakes are high
  • Moral
    clarity: risking re-election and advancement in favor of doing what's right

Pundits have been praising Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin
Republican who chairs the House budget committee, for the courage displayed in
his 2012 budget proposal. But their definition of "courage"
must be different from mine:

  • Ryan's
    budget rhetoric is misleading. He would privatize Medicare and convert Medicaid
    to a block grant, a lump sum of federal money given to the states to
    administer. But he would also make cuts to both programs--and as Ezra Klein explains, it's the cuts, not the reforms, that
    would save money. Yet Ryan suggests otherwise. After all, privatization
    and state control perform far better in polls than reduced health coverage for
    poor people and retirees.
  • His
    math is fuzzy. It relies on some implausible optimism about the
    plan's effects over time. For example, even if you believe that lower tax rates
    for rich people and corporations will somehow lead to more revenue, it's absurd to expect this to add up to $100 billion in
    the first year. But that's what Ryan's budget assumes, based on a combination
    of faith in business and unspecified savings from reducing tax breaks.
    The Congressional Budget Office--the nonpartisan budget umpire--doesn't share all of Ryan's number-crunching optimism.
  • Ryan
    also offers few details as to how a lot of what he
    proposes would be accomplished. The plan may be confrontational, but it isn't
    serious policy. It's an ideological broadside--in Ryan's own words, "it's a cause."
  • I
    don't think Ryan's risking much here, though his party might
    . His budget won't become law in its current form, but that was a
    foregone conclusion. His congressional district (in which I grew up) is
    unlikely to punish him for this, and his alleged courage will only cement his
    status as a rising star.

I think Ryan's plan is immoral. I imagine he sees things
differently. But even assuming he believes his plan is the right and just thing
to do, where's the courage in framing it in such misleading ways?

If Ryan believes seniors should have to pay more for their health
care, he should say so. If he believes that spending cuts ought to primarily
target programs that help low-income people, he should explain why. In a time
of staggering inequality and rising deficits, if Ryan thinks rich folks are due
for a major tax cut, he ought to make this case directly--and without the fuzzy

Until he does, people should stop saying his budget plan is
courageous. It's certainly aggressive, but that's not the same thing--and the
fact that pundits blur the two speaks of deep problems in our public life.

Steve Thorngate

The Century managing editor is also a church musician and songwriter.

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