Amid budget and debt debates, Paul Ryan lists toward the middle: a few thoughts

The government shutdown and debt debate are obviously fluid issues, but we know there will be some lasting fallout after an inevitable deal is struck and the government is funded and debt limited extended as they have to be.

In a remarkable op-ed this week in the Wall Street Journal — Here’s How We Can End This Stalemate — Paul Ryan backed off of any threats to defund the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). He didn’t even mention the new health care/insurance law in the piece. And he struck a tone that I’d call fairly pragmatic, although some on the left would still see his ideas as very conservative.

Here’s the policy meat, such as it is, in Ryan’s op-ed:

Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started. We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and reduce costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.

The president has embraced these ideas in budget proposals he has submitted to Congress. And in earlier talks with congressional Republicans, he has discussed combining Medicare’s Part A and Part B, so the program will be less confusing for seniors. These ideas have the support of nonpartisan groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and they would strengthen these critical programs. And all of them would help pay down the debt.

We should also enact pro-growth reforms that put people back to work—like opening up America’s vast energy reserves to development. There is even some agreement on taxes across the aisle.

I suppose some would cynically see Ryan’s new position as a bending to political winds, or even a dishonest ploy of some sort. I suppose some Ryan supporters would say that these aren’t new positions.

But Ryan has been proclaiming budget doom for several years now, and he’s the one who has led the charge to turn Medicare into a voucher system (with some obvious similarities to the ACA, by the way).

Ryan has also called for deep cuts to discretionary spending in addition to entitlement cuts, and he has also called for accompanying tax cuts that would keep his proposed budgets from balancing for many years.

Why now is he proposing some fairly straightforward ways of addressing U.S. debt over the long-term, some of which Obama himself has floated?

Maybe Ryan and other budget hawks among the Republicans are noting that our falling deficits are taking pressure off the entire budget debate.

Or maybe they realize that their more extreme ideas have little support even among Republicans.

And there’s the problem even with the relatively modest proposals in this week’s op-ed: the AARP and other powerful lobbies — many of which largely support Republicans — oppose ANY changes to Social Security and Medicare.

I think Obama would sign a “grand bargain” that includes the elements Ryan mentions along with other compromise measures, but the President won’t be able to guarantee a majority of Democratic House votes for such a deal. A deal that includes cuts to popular entitlements would need the heavy support of Republican House members, but some in the Tea Party wing won’t want to settle for something so modest and others will face sudden pressure from their own constituents who never really grasped that Republicans have been campaigning on cuts to much-loved programs like Social Security.

I don’t know how the current battles will play out, but Ryan’s op-ed — which has led to a lot of consternation in conservative circles — might prove an important document.

Or Ryan might have just marginalized himself from his own party.