The Only Reasonable Response Is Alarm

I’m not surprised that Michael Gerson, architect of “compassionate conservatism,” has convinced himself that this generation of Republican leaders is carrying on in his footsteps (via Mike Allen):

Obama’s overreach has also produced another conservative reaction – a Reform Conservatism. The key figure here is Paul Ryan … Its brain trust includes thinkers such as Yuval Levin, James Capretta and Peter Wehner. The reform movement … looks for ways to achieve the ends of the welfare state both through more private means and more efficient public means. … Speaker John Boehner has adopted Ryan’s reform approach as the de facto ideology of the House Republican majority. [Emphasis mine]

The Ryan budget does a lot of things. It flattens the tax code and dramatically cuts taxes for high-income earners. It caps federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, and it calls for higher military spending. It turns Medicaid into a block grant for the states, and gradually shifts Medicare to a private insurance plan.

Here’s what we know about these ideas. Over the next ten years, Ryan’s tax plan would cost the federal government $4.6 trillion in revenue on top of the $5 trillion it costs to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts. Ryan, in other words, would engineer an unprecedented financial windfall for the wealthiest Americans. Everyone else would have to pay for it.

His Medicaid plan would cut the program by $800 billion over the same period, and cause 14 million people (at least) to lose their health care coverage. His budget would cut food stamps by $133 billion over the next decade, and cut the Pell Grant program to nonexistence. Non-defense discretionary spending would all but vanish. Veterans’ health care, medical and scientific research, highways, education, national parks, food safety, clean air and clean water enforcement, and law enforcement would be on the chopping block, along with funds for low-income housing and other programs to assist the working poor.

This is neither compassionate nor an attempt at achieving “the ends of the welfare state through more private means and more efficient public means”—it’s a whole scale attack on the idea of social responsibility. Paul Ryan doesn’t call for new charity, and he doesn’t even attempt to provide incentives for these newly enriched rich people to give away their money. It’s simply Robin Hood in reverse; taking from everyone to give the most privileged. The methods might be new, but the idea—that the strongest, most powerful people deserve the spoils of civilization—is as old as human history. Paul Ryan is but one in a long line of people who have worked to enrich the wealthy at all costs.

And here’s the thing. As Gerson describes, this idea—that the rich don’t have enough—has been embraced by the Republican Party writ large:

"Mitt Romney has embraced the outlines of the Ryan budget and Medicare reform with more enthusiasm that I suspected he would. … Reform Conservatism is intellectually and politically ascendant. It would be the governing agenda of the next Republican administration.

Gerson says that the terms of the debate this fall will be between “Reform Conservatism” and “Obama’s surprisingly unreconstructed liberalism.” Now is not the place to define Obama’s liberalism, but even if it were, this is wrong. The 2012 election isn’t a debate between two variations on welfare state capitalism—it’s a choice between two visions of American society. Will the United States be a place of solidarity between people? Will we build a society where everyone has the tools to succeed? Will we care for the least advantaged in the best way that we can? Or will we indulge the hyper-individualistic id of American life, and create a place where opportunity is reserved for those who already have it, and everyone else is left to defend themselves against the unbridled market?

Believe me when I say that I’m not exaggerating for the sake of the election. The Ryan/Romney/Republican is a complete departure from the post-war political consensus in a way that wasn’t true of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, or even McCain/Palin. Ryan wants to return to a world of tremendous social and economic injustice, and the GOP has signed on wholeheartedly. It’s alarming, and those of us who fall within the liberal tradition, that’s a necessary and reasonable response.