Republicans unveil Pledge to America, but where was Paul Ryan?

Rep. Paul Ryan has emerged as the Republicans' rising star on fiscal issues. His absence from the Pledge to America unveiling added to a sense of disappointment among some conservatives.

Scott Anderson/The Journal Times/AP
Rep. Paul Ryan delivers a speech at a 'tea party' event on Sept. 11 in Racine, Wis.

Why wasn’t Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the House Banking Committee and a founder of the GOP’s “young guns” program, present at the much-anticipated rollout Thursday of the House Republicans’ campaign platform, the “Pledge to America”?

It may be nothing. Congressman Ryan’s spokesman, Kevin Seifert, told the Monitor that “it was just a matter of scheduling. He had some prior commitments.” He added that Ryan was involved in the writing of the preamble and had also weighed in on the document as a whole.

But reaction in the conservative blogosphere has been less than enthusiastic – one columnist called it a “pledge to do nothing” – and Ryan’s absence raised questions as to whether one of the GOP's rising stars is truly happy about the most important GOP document of the campaign season.

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Ryan is the go-to guy among Republicans on fiscal policy, and given the pledge’s central focus on reining in government spending, preserving the Bush tax cuts, and repealing health-care reform, it seemed logical that he would be there. Indeed, he was present on morning news shows Thursday, talking up the pledge’s features – but also lowering expectations about what can be accomplished if the Republicans do retake control of Congress, given that the Democratic President Obama will still be in office come January.

“We have to recognize that we’re going into – if we get the majority – an era of divided government and so we want to talk about deliverables,” Ryan said on CNN Thursday morning.

Silent on entitlements

Notably missing from the pledge was much discussion about the future of government entitlements, namely Social Security and Medicare, which are major drivers of a looming fiscal crisis. In his own plan, called the Roadmap for America’s Future, Ryan has been a strong advocate for the use of the free market in reforming entitlements, proposing introduction of private investment accounts into Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program.

When President Bush proposed partial privatization of Social Security after his reelection in 2004, the Republican-controlled Congress didn’t even take it up. Ryan is now the leading congressional champion of the concept. But on Thursday, he suggested that while there is an ongoing discussion on the future of entitlements, the pledge perhaps wasn’t the place for much detail along those lines.

“We want to talk about aspirations and the key first steps we need to take to get this country back on track,” Ryan said. “That's why we're talking about cutting and controlling spending, preventing big tax increases which will cost us jobs and slow down the economy, and just cleaning up the mess that has become the way Congress operates these days.”

'Wasted opportunity'?

Most Republicans are fine with the pledge – in some ways, a 2010 version of former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s vaunted 1994 Contract with America, which preceded the last GOP House takeover – though some conservatives have balked. Blogger Erick Erickson of calls it “an unmitigated spectacle of wasted opportunity,” starting with the pledge’s lack of a ban on earmarks. Conservative columnist David Frum called it a “pledge to do nothing,”

“Here is the GOP cruising to a handsome election victory,” Mr. Frum writes in Canada’s National Post. “Did you seriously imagine that they would jeopardize the prospect of victory and chairmanships by issuing big, bold promises to do deadly unpopular things?”

One happy constituency, post-pledge, may be the White House. Obama and Co. have been trying all election season to portray the coming midterms as a choice, not a referendum (on them). Now the choice has been laid out in black and white. Still, the lack of specificity in the pledge may make it less useful as a campaign foil than the Democrats might have liked.

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