By David Rohde
This week, Representative Paul D. Ryan (R-Wi.) may have made himself the leading Republican presidential contender in 2016. By proposing an end to the budget impasse that did not include one word — Obamacare — Ryan may have outmaneuvered Senators Rand Paul (R- Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R- Texas).
Ryan is clearly trying to position himself as a fiscal conservative who is serious about addressing the country's deficit problem — without destroying the U.S. economy in the process. He is trying to win the support of the moderate Republicans and mainstream business leaders increasingly exasperated by the Tea Party's flirtation with default.
Along with not insisting that Obamacare be part of any deal, Ryan dropped his controversial proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
"Right now, we need to find common ground," Ryan wrote in a Wednesday Wall Street Journal op-ed article that outlined his proposed deal. "We need to open the federal government."
Ryan's proposal has its problems. It only addresses the debt ceiling and includes conditions that President Barack Obama should reject. But it is an opportunity for negotiations and a potential path out of increasingly dangerous deadlock.
Obama should only sign a measure that reopens the government and raises the debt ceiling without conditions. But he should embrace a short-term deal that includes immediate fiscal talks with Republicans. Yes, kicking the can down the road for a month or two is not ideal — but it is far better than default.
Democrats are understandably wary of Ryan. He could be a far-right Trojan Horse. Faced with a default catastrophe, entitlement reforms that Republicans have been unable to enact for years look less painful. So do tax reforms that may benefit the wealthy. By positioning itself even farther to the right, skeptics argue, the Republican Party could get the fiscal reforms it wants.
But Democrats should realize that the current impasse is strengthening their hand. Four polls released this week show that the shutdown is doing far more damage to Republicans than Democrats. In short, the Tea Party is losing.
On Monday, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 70 percent of Americans disapprove of how Republicans are handling themselves in the budget impasse, a 7 percent increase since last week. In a bad sign for Cruz and Paul, 59 percent of Americans who identified themselves as conservatives said they disapproved of how the GOP has handled the issue as well.
Democrats are also suffering damage. Sixty percent of those polled said they disapproved of how Democrats were handling the dispute. And 51 percent said they disapproved of Obama's performance. A Pew Research Center poll also released on Monday showed similar findings. Thirty-eight percent of Americans blamed Republicans for the shutdown while 30 percent blamed Obama.
On Thursday, a Gallup poll found a 10 percent drop in GOP approval rating — from 38 percent last month to 28 percent now. That was the lowest approval rating for the party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992.
And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also released on Thursday found that 53 percent of respondents blamed the Republican Party more for the shutdown and only 31 percent blamed Obama — a wider margin of blame for the GOP than during the 1995-1996 shutdown.
Whether or not Ryan is being politically opportunistic, he is showing more courage than House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whose primary concern appears to be appeasing the House's Tea Party Caucus so he can remain speaker.
Ryan is playing to his base: fiscal conservatives. In his opinion piece, Ryan proposed mean-testing Medicare premiums so that the wealthy pay more, reforming the Medigap program and forcing federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.
Ryan claimed that the savings from those three measures would be large enough to ease the across-the-board cuts — known as the sequester. Unlike some Tea Party members, he agrees that the sequester is a foolish way to cut spending.
"Most of us agree," Ryan wrote, referring to Republicans and Democrats, "that gradual, structural reforms are better than sudden, arbitrary cuts."
Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, told the New York Times on Thursday that she and Democrats have changed their view of Ryan after meeting with him dozens of times this year to try to find a compromise.
Murray and Ryan both said that they believed they could find common ground between the vastly different budgets enacted this year by the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House.
"Patty and I have a good relationship," Ryan told the Times. "We don't agree on much but we get along well."
Ryan has disappointed before. He declined to be part of the "super committee" that was set up to avoid a default in 2011. At the time, his aspirations for higher office were seen as prompting him to be cautious.
Maybe, just maybe, the 2012 defeat tempered Ryan. One way to tell will be whether he continues to embrace conservative opposition to tax increases of any kind as part of a fiscal "grand bargain."
A short-term delay will not solve our enormous political and fiscal problems. But it will show whether the Tea Party has peaked in influence. And whether Ryan has changed.