Paul Ryan's plan for entitlements: A profile in courage?

Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin, offered a detailed plan for entitlement reform on Tuesday, putting a political bulls-eye on his back. Would he fit John F. Kennedy's criteria for a 'profile in courage'?

(Credit: AFP - Nicholas Kamm - Newscom)
Paul Ryan, Republican representative from Wisconsin, and chairman of the House Budget Committee.

In 1956, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy released a book under his name entitled "Profiles in Courage," detailing the acts of eight senators in US history "whose devotion to principle lead them to unpopular courses," as he put it. The book was a big hit, winning him the Pulitzer Prize and launching Kennedy to the presidency.

Now some media and politicians are wondering if Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, would be a "profile in courage" for his bold and detailed plan to reform Medicare and Medicaid. Or is his plan, released Tuesday, an act of political folly, like putting a bull's-eye on his back for daring to reform popular social programs?

Mr. Ryan is one of the few politicians that President Obama is said to both admire and fear for his intellect, and perhaps his courage. Mr. Obama himself, by running for the White House as a black man, is widely respected for his courage, even if his own intellect sometimes makes him appear professorial.

Ryan's courage may be seen simply in the context of the lack of courage within his own party. Republicans have long been afraid to be very specific about reform of the big social programs, especially Social Security. Even Ryan didn't include the retirement program in his reform plan, partly because it is still perceived as the "third rail" of politics and partly because it is in less dire need of financial reform than the two big health programs.

If his plan should be remembered for its courage, it is in saying that America's fiscal black hole is the most important issue facing the country, more important than any specific spending program. The deficit can't be taxed away or merely chipped away, but needs wholesale change, he is saying.

Like Martin Luther, Ryan has now had a "here I stand" moment, achieving a high profile, at least. It can make him either a forgotten martyr someday or perhaps lead to a chapter about him in a future "Profiles in Courage" book – perhaps written when another Kennedy runs for office.

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