Columns » Ernest Dumas

Smiting the weak



Mitt Romney's bold selection of Paul Ryan, the author of the Ryan budget, as his running mate raises the question: Does that put Arkansas and its six electoral votes in play?

After all, if there is a full-bore debate on Ryan's Roadmap for America, far more than half the people in the state could see that a Romney-Ryan-Republican government would change their lives for the worse by gutting programs that make their lives bearable.

But let's not be absurd. Of course it will not put Arkansas in play. Nothing could do that — maybe if it were proved that a masked Barack Obama himself, disguised as a Navy Seal, had bounded up the stairs of Osama bin Laden's compound that night in Abbottabad, ripped off his mask and shot the terrified old terrorist, or if the new running mates were caught in flagrante delicto in a bathroom scandal. Nothing else.

Still, to consider it is an interesting exercise. Arkansas will see none of the ad tonnage and the speechmaking that will be dumped on the dozen or so swing states, much of it, pro and con, explicating the Ryan plan, which Romney has decided to embrace unreservedly.

What if Arkansans were made privy to all that — forced to hear it, actually, if they turned on their TVs?

Democrats have been praying for Ryan as the vice presidential candidate, believing that most of the country will be horrified, if not at the current Ryan budget, at what it portends long range. Ryan was turned on to politics by the Darwinian author Ayn Rand. Life is for the strong, and a fit society and its government owe nothing to the weak, the unlucky, the disabled or the misfits.

All those government programs opposed by Republicans — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, college assistance, food and environmental safety (Republicans actually were complicit on environmental protection in the 1970s and '90s), disaster relief, farm aid, banking and securities regulation — must be phased out to return to a strong America. Ryan says the country should keep its promises to people already in the programs, but everyone afterward will be free to make it on their own. Ryan said in a New Yorker article last month that, beyond the military, government's role should pretty much be limited to national infrastructure — roads, bridges and the like. That is natural. Federal highway dollars are the source of his family inheritance, which paid for his eight-bathroom home.

Only billionaires and wannabe billionaires were demonstrating any enthusiasm for his candidacy, so Romney picked Ryan to put some juice in his moribund campaign. Sure enough, Ryan instantly turned on the well-to-do element of the Tea Party movement, who love his plan to cut taxes on the well to do.

Back to the question of how Arkansans would react. Let's take just Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which together directly affect some 1.5 million beneficiaries in Arkansas, if you don't count the families of all the children on government insurance or disability or the families of those in nursing homes and disability facilities. The Ryan-Romney plan would exempt the current beneficiaries from the cuts, for obvious political reasons, but they might vote just on the principle.

Ryan was the father of President Bush's short-lived effort in 2005 to privatize Social Security by diverting people's payroll taxes into private accounts run by stockbrokers. Ryan would start by diverting only half the taxes. But Bush was a wuss and to Ryan's dismay offered a weakened version, which soon went down in flames. Bush would say he regretted following Ryan's advice at all; Ryan says he deeply regrets going along with all of Bush's follies, from the wars to Medicare expansion. But Social Security, the linchpin of socialism, remains Ryan's main target.

Medicare and Medicaid are next. About 550,000 Arkansans are enrolled in Medicare and 790,000 in Medicaid — in nursing homes, the children's colonies or Easter Seals programs, mental health facilities, and the various categories of medical assistance, mainly children and the disabled.

The Ryan plan, which Republicans in the House of Representatives have repeatedly adopted, would end both programs, though Ryan keeps weakening his plan to pick up more votes. The idea is for now to just put the programs on their deathbeds.

Medicare would become essentially a voucher program except for current enrollees and those who will be enrolled in the next few years. People would get vouchers with which they could shop the insurance industry for medical and hospital coverage. The size of the voucher would be far short of medical inflation, so it would cover smaller and smaller parts of the premiums. Oldsters would be on their own.

Medicaid would end and the states would be sent capped block grants, like President Nixon's short-lived revenue sharing. States could choose what to do with the money. In Arkansas, it would set off a furious competition for the declining dollars among the nursing home population, which now gets the largest share of Medicaid, and all the other beneficiaries. Many would have to go back to their families, if any, to the streets or to the cemetery.

All those weaklings screaming and clawing. Ayn Rand would love it.

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