When Democrats take that weapon out of his hands and use it against him—just as he predicted—it makes Ryan seem like the kind of leader we haven't seen in a while, the type who will stand up and take a hit for what he believes. And it makes his opponents look weak and, frankly, not very smart.
That's because there's a larger misjudgment here: By using outrageous rhetoric and inflammatory arguments, Democrats continue to turn off voters who are exhausted by all the name-calling, mudslinging, and gridlock in Washington. It's no accident that congressional disapproval ratings have outpaced approvals for a while. The public's impatience with all the excuses, arrogance, and inaction is growing. No wonder this week's Reuters/Ipsos poll shows a whopping 69 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Just get it done, people seem to be saying; enough with all the nonsense. [See who donates the most money to Paul Ryan.]
The fact that the Democrat-led Congress did not pass a budget last year is not lost on voters. Earlier this year, they saw Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama all walk away from the Simpson-Bowles debt commission recommendations. Every time voters hear President Obama talking about the "false choices" that face us, they remember that he has yet to give us his own nonfalse choice for how to reform entitlements.
The White House is making a calculated gamble that the longer the budget fights drag out, through lengthy negotiations on the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, the more people will blame mean, "baby-killing" Republicans for reduced services—and the Democrats will win in a landslide in 2012. For decades, that playbook worked, and Democrats won't let it go. What they don't understand is that the world has changed. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]
For the first time ever, we have more Americans working for the government than in manufacturing, farming, utilities, and mining combined. A majority of the states are in some degree of fiscal crisis. According to the National Taxpayers Union, the top 10 percent of taxpayers now pay 70 percent of federal income taxes. Fewer and fewer Americans pay federal income taxes, while more and more demand services. This fall, our national debt will exceed our nation's gross domestic product for the first time since World War II. Gallup reports new highs in the number of people citing the deficit as a top concern. The central issue of our time has become the debate over the size and scope of government in our lives because no one wants our children to be the first generation to inherit a nation worse off than the one we inherited. That's an issue that resonates with everyone from new immigrants to grandparents.
Republicans are winning Obama's gamble because the longer the budget fight drags on, the more people realize this isn't about how "mean" the GOP is, or even how to cut billions. As conservative columnist David Brooks puts it, Ryan's budget is really a new vision of the social contract in America; liberal columnist E.J. Dionne says we are now in the most important struggle over the role of government since the New Deal. This is about how to transform our safety net into something sustainable and flexible, how to promote economic growth in the long run, and how to give our children the best life possible. It's about shaking that enduring sense that something is deeply wrong and putting our country back on the right track.