Is Wisconsin's Paul Ryan Too Bold for the GOP?

Wisconsin's Paul Ryan has an 87-page plan to cut spending and taxes. Republicans are nearly as leery of Ryan's proposal as Democrats are

  • Jon Lowenstein for TIME

    United States Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin's First District talked to constituents at the Racine County Fair in Union Grove, Wisconsin. He also entered a goat milking contest. Ryan is a Republican and a conservative.

    It's Paul Ryan's 12th year in congress, but it's his 13th year at the Racine County Fair goat-milking competition in Wisconsin, and he is a little sick of losing to beauty queens. So he recently got his goat game on, explaining his technique to a reporter: "You have to squeeze down and then aim," he says, miming a goat's udder in the air. "It's harder than milking a cow," he adds, "but it's easier than milking a bull."

    Ryan, 40, isn't afraid to muck out the stalls in Washington either. At a time when most of his Republican colleagues are content to posture as the Party of No, Ryan is virtually alone in his determination to detail exactly what the U.S. must do to cut federal spending and make a dent in the nation's $13 trillion debt. In a very short time, he has become a hero to deficit hawks. Ryan, says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is "one of three, maybe four, young Republicans who are going to change the face of the party."

    He's already doing that. Ryan has been sticking thorns in Congress's side since he began offering amendments to reduce lawmakers' pork projects a decade ago. In 2003 he forced Republicans to put free-market reforms in the Medicare prescription-drug program before he and other fiscal conservatives would vote for it. In 2006 he wrote legislation that would give the President line-item veto power--a move lawmakers on both sides have long resisted. In 2007 he called for earmark transparency; two years later, he was seeking a moratorium on the pet giveaways.

    But at the heart of Ryan's revolution is his Roadmap for America's Future--an ambitious 87-page, 75-year plan for getting America back in the black. Ryan has been thinking of this plan for years, but it wasn't until he became ranking member of the House Budget Committee in 2007 that he had enough clout to get the Congressional Budget Office to crunch his numbers. He proposes semiprivatizing Social Security by allowing younger workers to divert part of their payments to individual accounts they could access at retirement. He suggests abolishing Medicare and replacing it with vouchers for private insurers. He proposes capping total spending and freezing nondefense discretionary spending, though he leaves defense spending untouched.

    Ryan is the first to admit that his plan is not perfect. He knows the cost of health care could outpace the value of the vouchers, thereby shunting much of the tab onto patients. A study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that his plan would actually increase the deficit by $1.3 trillion by 2020 because it doesn't take into account $4 trillion in lost tax revenue. Ryan disputes the calculations behind those numbers but says he'd be willing to increase taxes to fix any shortfalls. In early August, liberal economist Paul Krugman took a whack at Ryan's plan and declared it as hollow as a piñata. "Mr. Ryan isn't offering fresh food for thought," he wrote in the New York Times. "He's serving up leftovers from the 1990s drenched in flimflam sauce."

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