We do not know who will win the White House in November. But we do know that American politics has crossed the Rubicon on spending and entitlements, and these issues will at long last complete the journey from a forbidden third rail to a central element of national politics. Even if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lose this year’s battle to Barack Obama, they will win the war on the challenge of our generation.
Congressman Paul Ryan is best known for his budget, the Ryan Roadmap, which ties together the two sides of our fiscal-crisis coin: First, the major entitlements of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will soon be bankrupt and unable to provide for millions of beneficiaries. And second, our growing $16 trillion debt will result in an unprecedented economic disaster if not balanced and then paid off.
President Barack Obama and his Democrats are replying with the inexcusably-irresponsible argument that overhauling entitlements and balancing the budget are cruel and unnecessary. They cry that this will harm seniors and deprive people of needed benefits, willfully ignoring the reality—with can be proved beyond doubt on a napkin using fifth-grade math skills—that the status quo cannot and will not continue.
Beginning in 1783, national leaders like John Jay corresponded with George Washington—the recently-retired commander-in-chief of the Continental Army—about the need for structural change in American government. They made the case that the Articles of Confederation had failed, and the national governing document must be fundamentally overhauled.
This eventually led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. But before reaching that point, as late as 1786, Washington agreed that young America teetered on the edge of an abyss, but that a critical mass of American citizens had not yet reached the same assessment. Things would get worse before they could get better, Washington concluded. Then things got worse with Shay’s Rebellion, and change came.
George Washington intuitively understood that major change in a democratic system must be driven by the people. We will not reform entitlements and balance the budget until they become kitchen-table issues for ordinary citizens, which takes time and visibility. Democrats simply pretend there is no problem. Now Republicans can make these points so central to national discourse that they become unavoidable and undeniable.
This election now turns on whether a critical mass of American voters have arrived at the undeniable conclusion that if we do not fundamentally transform the three major entitlements for younger Americans then it will not be there for them at all (or even for those who will soon rely upon them), and that if we do not balance the federal budget it will cause an economic catastrophe.
We will see one of three outcomes over the next four years. First, Romney-Ryan wins in November, with sufficient numbers and political will in the House and Senate to enact fundamental entitlement reform and a balanced budget. If so, that by itself could give Mitt Romney a lasting legacy as a transformational president.
Second, Romney-Ryans prevails, but without persuading a majority of Americans of the urgency of this issue, and so either Republicans do not hold both houses of Congress with stable majorities or those majorities lack the political courage to steadfastly resist intimidation and reject demagoguery to pass legislation to reinvent the entitlements and balance the budget.
Third, Barack Obama wins a second term, and claims it as a mandate not to curb spending or entitlements. We continue with trillion-dollar deficits, reaching $20 trillion in national debt 2017.
Under the first scenario, although current and imminent beneficiaries will retain their benefits, younger Americans will experience the discomfort that such foundational change entails, but will later be profoundly grateful. Under the second, Republicans may be at the helm when everything unravels, and conservatism could be blamed and suffer a devastating setback with voters. Under the third, by November 2016 voters should have no doubt what must be done, and realize that liberals offer only blame and denial, while conservatives offer solutions.
Regardless of whether Messrs. Romney and Ryan win this battle, conservatives can now win this war.