The Savaging of Paul Ryan — 30 April 2012

This country could do much worse than to have more like Paul Ryan in Washington.  When the halls of Congress are prowled by such exemplars of impropriety as Anthony Wiener, Eric Massa, John Ensign and Christopher Lee, it is a relief of sorts to find someone in the lot one’s children could look up to.

First and foremost, Ryan is serious about policy.  On the two biggest issues of the Obama years, health care and the fiscal calamity, Ryan knows as much or more than anyone else on the Hill.   He flustered the President at the 2010 health care summit, with greater command of the facts than the bill’s proponents.  Listen to him talk about budget issues, and you know that he knows how the money dynamics of Washington work.

As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, he produced budgets last year and this that both address the great deficit dilemmas we face, and do so by turning to conservative principles of tax reform, personal responsibility, and market forces.  Regardless of whether you agree with the budget’s provisions, give him credit for forging a philosophically consistent document and getting the entire Republican House caucus to vote for it, with the exception of a few Representatives who wanted greater austerity.

This is how lawmaking is supposed to work: the House passes its version of a bill; the Senate passes its own.  The differences between the two are ironed out in a conference committee, and returned to both houses for a final vote on the amalgam.  The Ryan budget is the House’s contribution to the fiscal debate; the Senate’s is this:       .

Harry Reid’s Democratic-controlled Senate has not bothered to pass a budget in three years, despite being obligated to do so by the Budget Reform Act of 1974.  The budget is the document that sets the nation’s priorities for the next fiscal year, and without a Senate complement to Ryan’s work, we flounder from continuing resolution to continuing resolution, leaving the whole process exposed to brinksmanship, last-minute panic deals, and games of fiscal chicken.

President Obama for his part offered a few feckless suggestions, but his budget last year failed in the Senate by a vote of 97-0; this year the House voted on Obama’s budget and the result was the same: unanimous defeat, 414-0.  That he can’t even get a single Congressman from his own party to vote for his budget just shows how deeply unserious President Obama is about this whole issue.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was unusually frank; in testimony before Ryan’s committee last February, he said, “We’re not coming before you to say we have a definitive solution to our long-term problem. What we do know is we don’t like yours.”

But Ryan is not a hyper-partisan bomb-thrower.  On the contrary, he amended his 2011 budget plan with a proposal for reforming Medicare that was co-authored by Alice Rivlin, formerly Bill Clinton’s budget director.  It was further amended this year in a joint proposal between Ryan and Democrat Ron Wyden, in which traditional Medicare was offered as an option along with Ryan’s favored premium-support plan.

Another thing I like about Ryan, and which we could use lots more of in DC, is that he is unfailingly courteous.  I have not been privy to his home campaigns, and maybe he does throw dirt, but I doubt it: I know Janesville Wisconsin, and I know Miami University, where he studied.  Both strike me as hotbeds of reasonableness.  When I think of Washington attack dogs, Ryan isn’t even on the list.  He can be critical of Democrats (with good reason – see above), but the harshest terms he uses are “failure of leadership” and the like.

And yet in response, the Democrats attack him like he’s Lucifer’s friend.  Remember the “throw Grandma of the cliff” ad featuring a Ryan lookalike that came out after last year’s budget?  As Geithner said, they can’t tell us what their plan is, but they know they don’t like his.

Not too many people get singled out by name for criticism by the President of the United States, but Ryan has enjoyed that distinction more than once.  In his recent “Social Darwinism” speech, Obama reduced the Ryan budget to caricature: poor children not getting food, grandparents unable to afford nursing homes, more airline flights getting canceled and weather forecasts becoming less reliable.  Quite evidently, if you oppose spending without limit to help the poor, you are in favor of suffering.

The President’s allies go further, of course.  Paul Krugman, the ultra-liberal economist (the “stimulus” failed because it was too timid), offered an ad hominem attack on Ryan: “He’s a garden-variety modern G.O.P. extremist, an Ayn Rand devotee who believes that the answer to all problems is to cut taxes on the rich and slash benefits for the poor and middle class.”

Last week, in advance of a Ryan speech at Georgetown University, a group of 80 faculty members of the Catholic university sent him a public letter dressing him down in terms dripping with condescension, suggesting that he needs to bone up on his Catholic doctrine – particularly the part where the Church commends government spending to help the poor.  They added, “Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican’sCompendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.” Puh-leeze.

Another thing I like about Ryan is that he holds his ground – particularly on the moral issues that arise from fiscal policy.  I wish more conservatives in office had the confidence he has that it is liberal policies that condemn the poor to a life of dependency, and the towering debt crisis that we face will cause greatest suffering on those least able to cope with it.  Addressing our long-term issues is the best thing policy makers can do for the least well-off.

His Georgetown speech shows that he knows at least as much of Catholic teachings as the Hoya writers.   He quotes Pope Benedict saying that “governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations” and “living in untruth.’”  He goes further into doctrinal concepts than we need to discuss here, but the point is clear – he would not be bullied by the arrogance of the Georgetown faculty.

It is a sad reflection on today’s politics that a serious proposal by a serious politician is met by either silence (Senate inaction), farce (Obama’s budget), distortion (Obama’s “Social Darwinism” speech and countless others), ad hominem attacks (Krugman et al), and snotty academic superiority (Georgetown faculty).  When the stakes are so high about the future of this country – and with the example of Greece burning in the corner of our vision – we deserve something better.

We deserve an honest discussion of the issues.

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