Let’s face it: we all expected liberals and Democrats to call Paul Ryan’s new budget proposal “radical.”  We just didn’t expect it to be a compliment.  Not only does the reliably liberal columnist unexpectedly praise Ryan’s long-term budget plans, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote last night that it gives the Republican Party the banner of intellectualism.

Yes, he means that as a compliment, too:

The Wisconsin Republican’s genuinely radical plan goes where Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich never did by terminating the entitlement status of Medicare and Medicaid. (It doesn’t touch the third major entitlement, Social Security, though Ryan has elsewhere argued for extending its life by gradually raising the retirement age to 70.) Ryan changes Medicare into a voucher, which would be used to purchase private health insurance. He turns Medicaid into a block grant for states to spend as they choose. Though his budget committee isn’t responsible for taxes, Ryan includes the boldest tax reform proposal since the 1980s, proposing to lower top individual and corporate rates to 25 percent and end deductions. While he’s at it, Ryan caps domestic spending, repeals Obamacare, slashes farm subsidies, and more.

If the GOP gets behind his proposals in a serious way, it will become for the first time in modern memory an intellectually serious party—one with a coherent vision to match its rhetoric of limited government. Democrats are within their rights to point out the negative effects of Ryan’s proposed cuts on future retirees, working families, and the poor. He was not specific about many of his cuts, and Democrats have a political opportunity in filling in the blanks. But the ball is now in their court, and it will be hard to take them seriously if they don’t respond with their own alternative path to debt reduction and long-term solvency.

His continuing Bushisms aside, I like reading Weisberg, but I’m under no illusions about his policy preferences.  He’s normally a fair partisan, but he is a partisan, so when I read this much praise for a “radical” Republican reform effort from Weisberg, I’m wondering where the catch is.  And here it is:

And before they reject everything in Ryan’s plan, liberals might want to consider whether some of what he proposes doesn’t in fact serve their own ultimate goals. Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher provides an easy political target. But it’s hard to make a principled liberal case for the program in its current form. To do so, you have to argue that government-paid health care should be a right only for people over the age of 65, and for no one else. Medicare covers doctor and hospital bills at 100 percent, regardless of income. This gives doctors and patients an incentive to maximize their use of the system and waste public resources. Choosing to pay 100 percent of Warren Buffett’s medical bills while cutting Head Start reflects a strange set of social priorities, to say the least. …

Effectively constraining the growth of Medicare could make it possible for Democrats to do a lot else that’s important to them in the future. In 2010, Medicare spending was $519 billion, as compared with $666 billion for all nondefense domestic discretionary spending. Growing at more than 7 percent a year, Medicare is projected to eventually consume nearly all federal tax revenues. It is crowding out everything else that Washington does or might want to do. Conversely, cutting Medicare’s growth rate to near the overall rate of the economy would do more than anything else to enable the kind of activist government liberals support—investment in kids, education, jobs, and infrastructure. Ryan’s goal isn’t to empower the federal government. But if your goal is a more interventionist public sector, you might find yourself on Ryan’s side of the Medicare debate.

In other words, Weisberg likes Ryan’s proposal not because it means that government will spend less, but because it means that government will have more money to spend elsewhere.  I’m tempted to leave that assumption alone if it means that progressives get behind Ryan’s plan.  Why quibble, after all?

Of course, it won’t work that way in practice for one reason — Congress won’t have the political support to create massive deficits in discretionary spending.  The only reason that we’ve arrived at the debt and spending levels we have now is because two-thirds of it occurs on autopilot.  In order to spend in the manner Weisberg suggests, Congress would have to either explicitly spend money we don’t have, or raise taxes to cover it.  Either would be political suicide once entitlement spending was brought under control.

That’s Ryan’s point anyway.  We don’t have the money to write these checks in the first place, and we need to quit pretending that we do.  Even under Ryan’s plan, we will go for several years before we get back to a point where we finally can cover the checks we do write.

Weisberg’s final point is his best.  If Democrats don’t like Ryan’s plan, then they need to come up with one of their own that addresses that reality.  Until they do, they have effectively conceded their position as the party of fiscal and intellectual bankruptcy.