By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — For a dozen years, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence were Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives and fellow soldiers in the conservative movement. Last week, they parted ways: one toward temperance, the other toward extremism.
Pence chose the sensible path. Elected governor of Indiana in November, he delivered his first State of the State speech Tuesday, describing his proposed budget that, though a fiscally conservative plan, increases funds for education, job training, transportation, veterans, child-protective services, and health care for the poor.
“Especially heartbreaking to this father,” Pence told Indiana legislators, “one in five Hoosier children lives in poverty. That is simply unacceptable.”
Contrast that with Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate, who, on the same day as Pence’s speech, took a radical step. As the price for getting restive House Republicans to go along with suspending the debt ceiling for three months, his office announced that Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman, would produce a budget that ends deficits in 10 years — 16 years earlier than he had previously proposed. This would mean cutting all government operations by one-sixth — or, if Ryan exempts entitlement programs and defense, cutting all other government operations by nearly 40 percent.
Why this sharp split? To be sure, part of it is circumstance. The budget is already in balance in Indiana, where Pence’s predecessor, Mitch Daniels, did a lot of cutting; Pence can afford to be more generous.
But there is something deeper going on here, too. Pence, for the first time, is actually in charge. Because the state has a Republican legislature, his budget, or something close to it, will likely become law. He has real power, so he is acting responsibly.
Ryan and his fellow House Republicans, by contrast, know their budget will never become law. They are free to be as reckless as they want to be, to throw as many bombs as they wish.
The dichotomy explains why the national Republican Party is in so much difficulty now, even as Republican governors maintain strong brands. Washington Republicans, by acting irresponsibly, are not giving Americans a reason to trust them with actual power.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former member of the House himself, on Thursday night denounced the Washington mindset of his Republican colleagues, who have fallen into the “wrong game” of arguing about government spending. “We as Republicans have to accept that government number-crunching, even conservative government number-crunching, is not the answer to our nation’s problems,” Jindal told a gathering of Republican leaders. “We must not become the party of austerity,” he warned.
Ryan, of course, is all about austerity. His latest promise to his fellow House Republicans, that he will write a budget that balances within a decade, requires him to cut nearly $800 billion a year by the end. If Ryan wants to protect Social Security, Medicare and defense from cuts, everything else (homeland security, food-safety inspections, air-traffic control, medical research and the like) will have to be cut an average of 37 percent — and more, if he plans further tax cuts.
Ryan is free to propose such a cockamamie plan because he knows that President Obama and Senate Democrats will never go along with it.
Then there’s Pence, who, as a leader of the Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives that dominates the GOP caucus, championed conservative Christian positions on abortion and routinely ranked among the most conservative House Republicans. But when he stood in the state Capitol last week, he sounded very different:
“Our budget proposes an increase in funding for education, including full-day kindergarten, and we fully fund the teachers’ pension each of the next two years.”
“We provide $18 million over the next two years to ensure that all Hoosier workers have the skills they need to find a job in today’s economy.”
“We’re investing nearly $350 million in excess reserves on Indiana’s roads and bridges and infrastructure.”
“I have also set a goal in our administration to procure 3 percent of state contracts from veteran-owned businesses.”
And so on.
Certainly, Pence didn’t become a bleeding heart. He’s also seeking a 10 percent income-tax cut, he didn’t go along with Obama’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility, and he’s seeking less for education and infrastructure than even some fellow Republicans want.
But he avoided contentious social issues and he made overtures to Democrats, even though, with Republican super-majorities in both chambers, he doesn’t have to. “From Pence, nothing bold but nothing polarizing,” said an Indianapolis Star headline Wednesday over an analysis of Pence’s State of the State speech.
Pence is ready to govern. When will Washington Republicans be?
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.