Paul Ryan’s budget could prove to be a perversely useful document.

Thanks to this plan, nobody can take the House Budget Committee chairman seriously anymore as a policy wonk or true deficit hawk. His budget is the work of an ideologue. It’s a bargaining ploy that even Ryan concedes is merely “a vision.”

It is full of holes and magic asterisks, the biggest being his refusal to detail any of the middle-class tax deductions he would have to scrap to get to his 25 percent income tax rate. This would represent an astonishingly large cut from the current 39.6 percent rate for incomes of over $450,000 a year.

It’s a cruel budget. To finance his largesse to the very well-off, Ryan would — through steep Medicaid cuts and the repeal of Obamacare — leave an additional 40 million to 50 million poor or moderate-income Americans without health insurance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

He’d impose big reductions for food stamps, college tuition aid, child nutrition programs and a slew of other programs that help the least among us. Even here, Ryan doesn’t come clean. He fuzzes up exactly how such cuts might be made by lumping them together in large categories.

Those who think of themselves as compassionate conservatives have a moral obligation to oppose Ryan’s design.

The Senate Democrats’ budget outlined Wednesday by Patty Murray of Washington could not be more different. It calls for $975 billion in new revenue though tax reform. In describing what Murray and her colleagues have in mind here, leadership aides pointed to a report released earlier this year by the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) that listed just over $1 trillion in loophole-closings as reflecting where Democrats will go.

In the CAP paper, about half the money comes from limits on deductions similar to those suggested by President Obama, the rest from smaller changes including measures to claw back money from oil and gas interests, hedge fund operators and the owners of corporate jets, yachts and the like.

In all, Ryan would cut close to $5 trillion in domestic spending; Murray, $493 billion. Murray has a $240 billion reduction in military spending; Ryan would restore defense spending that was cut in the sequester.

Yes, the numbers gap is large and so is the philosophical divide: Poorer Americans pay a big part of the price for Ryan’s cuts; Murray leans primarily on revenue from wealthier Americans to move closer to balance. Ryan claims to reach balance in 10 years. Murray and the Democrats rightly argue that rushing to balance is less important than keeping an eye on economic growth and job creation. So Murray includes $100 billion in her plan to support infrastructure projects and job-training programs.

Where do Ryan and Murray leave us?

At least these proposals are coming through the normal legislative process, an improvement over the fake crises that have become routine since 2011. From these two budgets, Americans will understand the choice that confronts them.

True, the 2012 elections ought to have settled these issues. The Ryan budget was on the ballot last November not only because Ryan was on the ticket with Mitt Romney but also because Romney offered a similar approach. It takes nerve to dismiss the results of an election that Ryan himself called a “referendum.”

The question is: Will the House Republicans be held accountable for ignoring that verdict while putting forward something this radical and unrealistic?

Murray has done a service by asking for more revenue than Obama did in his most recent offer. This should help make clear that the “center” in this debate is not between Obama’s position and the Ryan plan but roughly where the president is right now. He and his party can’t move too far away from what he has proposed without abdicating principle.

But there is bad news. House Republicans seem to believe they can offer a budget closer to Ayn Rand’s worldview than Ronald Reagan’s without paying much of a price. Some Senate Republicans inclined toward a reasonable deal will feel pressure to move right, given where Ryan has defined the boundaries of the debate inside the GOP.

This is, finally, a test of those who consider themselves moderate and are seeking a sensible settlement. Will they call out Ryan and the House Republicans for how extreme their ideas are? Or will they instead adjust their own postures and timidly let Ryan dictate the terms of the debate?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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