Last week, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) electrified the commentariat when he released the details of his budget plan.
Many of the essentials -- such as his plan to transform Medicare into a voucher program where the value of the vouchers, by design, fail to keep up with inflation in health care costs -- have been rattling around Capitol Hill corridors for some time. So it wasn't entirely surprising when word soon spread that the White House was going to use Ryan as its "foil": Ryan's Tybalt to Obama's Romeo, so to speak.
Only I'm not entirely sure the White House understands what a "foil" is! (For the record, it's "one that, by contrast, underscores or enhances the distinctive characteristics of another.")
Let's check in with all of the contrasts drawn and the distinctive characteristics enhanced by looking back on yesterday's White House press briefing:
Q: And without going into any details, of course, will the President directly or indirectly go after Paul Ryan's plan, and how will he do that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'm not going to preview the President's speech. Let's leave it at that.
Q: You're not going to say anything about -- how about Paul Ryan's plan independently?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what I have said and others have said is that the House Republican plan demonstrates a shared goal with the President, which is that we need to take serious action to address our long-term deficit and debt issues. What it doesn't demonstrate is the kind of balance that this President believes we have to employ as we address those long-term needs.
When the best you can do is suggest you are more "balanced" in pursuing a "shared goal," you are doing this whole "foil" thing wrong. Eventually Carney, after prompted by a reporter's question, got a smidge more aggressive by agreeing that the Ryan plan was "fundamentally unfair." As to what made it fundamentally unfair, he did not, on this occasion, offer much elaboration.
A week ago, Carney was willing to go further, but not by much:
Q: Thanks, Jay. Can you just expand on the President's response to the Ryan plan and how he may respond after this budget, current budget fight is over? On the entitlement reform, tax reform issue?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we are committed, as the President has said, to reducing America's long-term deficit, because it's essential to growing our economy and winning the future. Congressman Ryan is correct in identifying the fact that we cannot do that if we just look at 12 percent of our budget. A narrow slice of domestic spending, cutting that will not get us to where we need to get in terms of dealing with our long-term deficit. And that, I remind you, is what has occupied so much of our attention today and for the last weeks and months.
But while we agree on his ultimate goal, Congressman Ryan's goal, we strongly disagree with his approach, because any plan to reduce our deficit substantially must reflect American values of fairness and shared sacrifice.
We believe that Congressman Ryan's plan that he put forward fails that test. It cuts taxes for millionaires and special interests, while placing a greater burden on seniors who depend on Medicare or live in nursing homes; families struggling with a child who has serious disabilities; and workers who have lost their health care coverage.
The President believes, again, that the goal is important and he shares the goal, but he believes there is a more balanced way to achieve that goal, to put Americans on a path to prosperity, if you will.
All well and good, but it seems to me that if you've committed yourself to using Ryan as your "foil," now would be a good time to start talking about how his plan to phase out Medicare and Medicaid comes on the heels of the health care reform debate, in which opponents constantly demonized the White House for "raiding Medicare."
Or that the Ryan Plan raises taxes on the middle class while giving away money to Wall Street banks.
Or that the Ryan Plan included unemployment projections so batty that the Heritage Foundation had to revise them to something slightly less implausible. (Not that Heritage has ever managed to do employment models well in the first place.)
Here is how some famous comedy writers on the teevee pulled off "opposing the Ryan Plan."
By contrast, the White House's opposition to Ryan fails to advance in any meaningful way. Aside from some mild complaints about "balance" and "fairness," the emphasis is on the idea that everyone has a "shared goal."
That goal will apparently be advanced in a speech tonight, which, when announced, caught Congressional Democrats completely by surprise. (I guess the goal isn't as widely "shared" as people say it is!)
The speculation of the day, of course, is that Obama will largely embrace the plan laid out by the Simpson-Bowles deficit panel. That's problematic for a lot of reasons. As Ezra Klein points out, "if Obama is such a fan of this approach...why didn't he say more about it during his budget?"
More importantly, Simpson-Bowles isn't an authentic Democratic Party counterproposal:
The danger for Obama is that in endorsing Simpson-Bowles at the beginning of a process of compromise, he makes a centrist -- at best -- proposal the left pole of the debate, with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget serving as the right pole. That implies an outcome similar to the shutdown negotiations, where the Democrats ended up arguing for House Speaker John Boehner's cuts while the Republicans ended up arguing for the tea party's cuts, and the final deal was somewhere between the two. A debate between center and right will lead to a further right outcome than a debate between left and right.
So here's how this story is going to end: Obama will propose Simpson-Bowles as a counter to Ryan. There will be a big fight. If this runs like the health care reform debate did, Obama's presumed GOP allies (they're even calling themselves the "Gang Of Six"... AGAIN) will sell him out. Some House progressive will try to produce an authentic counter-proposal, but absent a bully pulpit, it will die on the vine. The eventual deal will be somewhere in the middle ground between the center-right Simpson-Bowles and the far-right Ryan plan. Getting the necessary Democratic votes for passage will be like pulling teeth.
The only good thing is that once it's over, the GOP will praise the Democrats for not being partisan and give them credit for being serious about curbing spending.
Ha ha, just kidding! None of that will happen at all! The GOP will continue to attack the Democrats for not "listening to the American people" and not "doing enough to get serious about the deficit."
By contrast, Romeo and Tybalt went at each other with swords.