If there was a question President Obama tried to answer with his speech this afternoon to the Associated Press, it was this—“what happened to the Republican Party?” And to that end, he marshaled evidence from a century of political history to show that today’s Grand Old Party is dangerously unmoored from the American consensus, with a budget proposal that amounts to “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
To a large degree, Obama’s speech was filled with the frustration of liberals who see the extent to which the Republican Party has rejected the notion of a government that works positively within the economy. “It was Dwight Eisenhower who launched the interstate highway system and made investments in scientific research … Reagan worked with Democrats to save Social Security … It was George W. Bush who expanded Medicare to include prescription drug coverage,” he said, citing Republican presidents who worked to strengthen the social safety net over the course of the last century. “What leaders in both parties have traditionally understood,” he declared, “is that these programs aren’t schemes to redistribute wealth … they are signs that we are one nation.”
Today’s Republican Party, Obama argued, has abandoned this traditional understanding, in favor of a “failed approach” of trickle-down economics. “In this country, broad-based prosperity has never come from the success of a wealthy few,” he said.
Case in point is Paul Ryan’s latest budget, which—like his Roadmap released last year—would require massive cuts to existing social spending and destroy any semblance of fairness in the economy, as the rich received huge benefits from an economy slanted in their favor. As Obama described it, “The Republicans have doubled down and proposed a budget so far to the right that it makes the Contract for America look like the New Deal.”
Indeed, Obama took the time to illustrate the extent to which the Ryan budget would demolish the federal government as we know it, citing the millions of people who would lose health care coverage with Medicaid cuts, the millions of children who would lose access to healthy food with WIC cuts, and the millions of students who would lose a shot at college because of cuts to Pell Grants and other programs designed to make school more affordable.
He pointed out that while Republicans refuse to say where they would make cuts, cuts have to happen if we adopt their budget, “Perhaps they will never tell us where the knife will fall, but you can be sure that with cuts this deep, there will never be a secret plan to protect the investments we need for our economy to grow. This is not conjecture, I am not exaggerating, these are facts.”
From his aggressive tone to his sharp and clear language, this was a campaign speech, and he took care to tie his likely competitor—former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney—to the policies pushed by congressional Republicans. “He called it ‘marvelous’,” said Obama, highlighting the degree to which the “Path to Prosperity” is the Republican Party platform for 2012.
I said this morning that thanks to the short-sighted ideological fervor of Paul Ryan, Obama can make a strong and clear case against the Republican Party. I didn’t realize that this would also be a brutal indictment of the party’s priorities. With his speech, Obama presented the GOP as the defenders of a failed ideology that would leave most Americans trapped in their station, struggling in a hostile economy. If this sounds far-fetched, look no further than the last three years—Republicans have either pushed to eliminate regulations and cut taxes on the rich, or they have stood against any effort to make the economy more fair, or put some restraints on those who caused the financial crisis.
Obama’s challenge is to convince the public that Republicans would continue on that path if elected to office. At the risk of sounding too certain, I think he can do it.