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April 26, 2012 5:00 PM Ryan Pushes the Camel’s Nose Under the Tent

By Ed Kilgore

Boy, it’s quite the week for Paul Ryan’s pushback against criticism from his co-religionists. First he announced a preference for the metaphysics and epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas over those of St. Ayn Rand during a friendly interview with National Review. Then he took himself over to Georgetown University to defend the compatibility of his budgetary handiwork with Catholic social teachings, which he certainly felt the need to do after a couple of tongue-lashings from the Bishops and from a large group of Catholic theologians and social services providers.

As Jonathan Easley explained in a useful account of the speech at The Hill, Ryan (who ignored some very visible protesters) mainly relied on the argument that the “fiscal crisis” facing the country trumped any concern over his budget’s impact on the poor and vulnerable:

“The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt,” Ryan said. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.’”
Ryan painted a bleak future for the United States if the country is unable to get its debt under control.
“If our generation fails to meet its defining challenge, we would see America surrender her independence to the army of foreign creditors who now own roughly half of our public debt.”
Ryan used that kind of heavy, existential language throughout, which may explain the ease with which he is able to dismiss criticism: If the looming economic crisis is what he says it is, it would seem to provide a moral defense for his budget. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), also a Catholic, has made a similar defense of the GOP budget.

It’s interesting that Ryan took this tack instead of claiming, as he did during a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, that his budget was precisely the sort of bracing moral tonic poor people needed, afflicted as they were by dependence on public assistance and a distressingly light tax burden. Perhaps no social encyclicals came to hand in defense of that proposition.

But it’s clear he had a limited objective before this relatively hostile audience: establishing that his point of view was one of many legitimate interpretations of Catholic social teachings:

“I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts … not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church,” the House Budget Committee chairman said. “Of course, there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this.
“The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it. What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day.”

You have your opinion, I have mine, so let’s not get all judgmental about it, Ryan seemed to be saying. It’s a remarkably similar get-the-camel’s-nose-under-the-tent approach to the one he’s taken to deal with criticism from progressives generally, with the occasional assist from the White House and deficit-hawk Democrats: since we all agree there’s this terrible fiscal crisis, then come let us reason together on how to control entitlement spending and undertake tax reform, shall we?

It’s definitely part of the pattern whereby Ryan has managed simultaneously to become the maximum hero of hard-core conservatives who view him as their champion in the effort to roll back the New Deal and Great Society, and a respected intellectual in Beltway circles with whom Democrats can conduct good-faith negotiations. I’ve wondered how he keeps pulling this off; it seems his secret is the ability to find and defend the tiniest scrap of common ground with people who ought to view him like a firebug in a library.

No wonder he’s on Mitt Romney’s running-mate short list!

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Ron Byers on April 26, 2012 5:11 PM:

    If Paul Ryan really believed the emerging "debt crisis" was as bad as he claims he wouldn't be proposing to lower taxes on millionaires and billionaires. Instead he would be proposing tax increases across the board.

  • T2 on April 26, 2012 5:17 PM:

    Ryan is respected in Beltway circles because he makes complete sentences. The content is baloney, but the structure is fine for the most part. Very few of the TeaBagger contingent can make sentences....Palin, Bachmann, West, etc.

  • Col Bat Guano on April 26, 2012 5:19 PM:

    Yeah, since his budget doesn't eliminate the deficit for twenty years, this looming fiscal crisis must not be that serious. Much like Mr. Ryan himself.

  • Rich on April 26, 2012 5:19 PM:

    Like Romney, he's clearly a guy w/o a core who will spin things for an audience. That his plan is similarly hollow with regard to details just adds to this. the impression of Ryan as technocrat by the MSM really needs to be confronted. Sociopath is a more apt description.

  • Jimo on April 26, 2012 5:24 PM:

    But of course this "economic collapse would be even worse" meme would require a rational individual to adopt the obvious solution: more revenue. At least revenues at historical rates!

    Again and again, we see from today's extreme right an attitude that used to be reserved to the most radical libertarians: unless you do things 100% my way, all the moral consequences fall 100% on your shoulders (not mine).

  • SecularAnimist on April 26, 2012 5:27 PM:

    Paul Ryan is a cynical fraud and a bought-and-paid-for corporate stooge who will spout whatever line of bullshit -- ie. his appeals to Ayn Rand's Objectivism and Pope Benedict's Catholicism -- he thinks will "get over" with a particular audience.

    As other commenters have already noted, of course, his central fraud is his ridiculous and hypocritical claim that the "overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt".

    That claim is ridiculous because it is blatantly and transparently false, and hypocritical because Ryan's budget proposals would only increase the Federal debt.

  • hells littlest angel on April 26, 2012 5:30 PM:

    I doubt we'll be so lucky as to have Ryan as Romney's running mate. He is just too perfect, a mini-Mitt who would look absolutely at home sitting on Romney's lap.

  • sparky on April 26, 2012 5:42 PM:

    If Ryan is so convinced that the debt is the defining issue facing us today why does he think that suffering to pay down that debt should be confined to those already at the brink financially. Does he think that the rich are God's chosen people and,as such, their contribution to national solvency should be limited to an occassional bone of charity tossed mercifully to the downtrodden.

  • tcinaz on April 26, 2012 5:57 PM:

    Another proof that Ryan is a cynical fraud in Catholic disguise comes in the form of his budget priorities regarding military spending. As a devout Catholic of any moral stripe, he should be reticent about contributing to the moral horrors of war on a global scale. Yet Steve Benen pointed out on March 30, "First, Ryan is ostensibly someone who's eager to slash every possible public investment. Indeed, he believes spending has to be brutally cut to the bone to prevent some kind of looming "debt crisis," And yet, given the chance to cut nearly a half-trillion in spending over the next decade, the right-wing Wisconsinite has suddenly discovered he disapproves of budget cuts after all. (Ryan wants to increase defense spending, even while cutting everything else.) The United States contributes 41% of the world's $1.3 trillion in yearly military spending. We spend more than 2 times the total of the next 10 nations combined. We produce weapons in use around the globe in causes antithetical to our democratic ideals, and in direct conflict with Paul Ryan's Catholic morality. Yet Ryan believes we should increase defense spending. It doesn't get more cynical than that.

  • Anonymous on April 26, 2012 6:12 PM:

    "The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it."

    When did the Pope say it was hunky dorry for Catholics to interpret the bible for themselves?

  • Peter C on April 26, 2012 6:18 PM:

    I’m sorry, but this sanctimonious crap really gets my goat.

    Did Ryan speak out AGAINST his party in 2000 (when the Clinton budget SURPLUSES were on track to eliminate the national debt entirely) when Republicans argued that the government had to ‘give back the people’s money’ because the surpluses were too big?

    Did Ryan vote against the Bush budgets WHICH ALL HAD DEFECITS even before 2 unfunded, off-budget wars?

    Before 2000, there was arguable ambiguity about which party was fiscally responsible and which spent like drunken sailors and ran up deficits. After all, during the budget busting Reagan years there was a Democratic congress. During much of the Clinton surplus years, there was a Republican congress. Democrats could argue that the President was responsible; Republicans could argue that Congress gets the credit.

    HOWEVER, all of that was resolved in the first 6 years of the Bush presidency. When Republicans controlled BOTH Congress and the White House (and pushed through EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED, often with Senate votes under rules of ‘reconciliation’, and once keeping a House vote open for hours while Republicans operatives bribed recalcitrant members on the floor) they showed what they really think about fiscal responsibility. We got ‘Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. We won the mid-term elections, this is our due”. Of course, Ryan voted his Catholic conscience then, bucking his party, right???? Oh. I guess he’s more Republican than a Catholic after all.

    NO Republican in Congress between 2000 and 2006 can justly be called a fiscal conservative. Not only did they break the bank, but they slept at the switch while their banker friends sent the economy into a careening off the tracks. For as much as TARP was a bailout to the banks, the opening Bush proposal was just to give the banks the money (instead of lending it to them and required by the Democratic Congress).

    Republicans care about budget deficits ONLY when they are not the ones controlling which crony gets the money. When they are in control, rewarding themselves and their cronies by raiding the public treasury is their ‘due’.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 26, 2012 6:38 PM:

    I figured out what Paul Ryan's problem was a long time ago: he's a dick.

  • schtick on April 26, 2012 7:06 PM:

    Amazing the tealiban doesn't want people to benefit from their taxes, but want the big rich corporations to benefit from the taxes people pay when those same corporations pay little if any, taxes.
    Nevermind that those elected jokes are getting full benefits and retirement from the same tax paying people. They want Buffet to donate his riches to the IRS, how about they donate to the deficit by giving up their full family benefits and retirement from little to no work at their "job" of two days a week.

  • cmdicely on April 26, 2012 7:35 PM:

    It's interesting that Ryan took this tack instead of claiming, as he did during a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, that his budget was precisely the sort of bracing moral tonic poor people needed, afflicted as they were by dependence on public assistance and a distressingly light tax burden.

    Propaganda is widely recognized as being more effective when it is properly calibrated to the audience. "This is what the people with money who can support my political career and, more importantly, grant my a sinecure should that ever fail want me to do", might be more honest than either the AEI or Georgetown presentations, but its not really what Ryan expects either audience wants to hear. So, given what he's trying to sell, he dresses it up as best he can for each audience.

    But it’s clear he had a limited objective before this relatively hostile audience: establishing that his point of view was one of many legitimate interpretations of Catholic social teachings

    Given that the US Conference has spoken rather emphatically, he has only two choices if he wants to sell his budget as within the Catholic orthodoxy. He could take the position he has (arguing, essentially, that while the budget is motivated by principles embraced in Catholic social teaching, it is outside the area on which there is clear authority), or he could take the position that the national bishops conference is, as a body, in error on a matter within the teaching authority of the Church, which rather than defusing the controversy he obviously wasn't prepared for would be a serious escalation.

  • Doug on April 26, 2012 7:54 PM:

    Rep. Ryan lies. Why he lies is of no concern to me; that he lies is. Yet, apparently, this is now what passes for "original thinking" inside the Beltway.
    Pitiful...

  • Anonymous on April 26, 2012 9:18 PM:

    "The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it." Fine. The Bishops TOLD you that you don't understand 'correctly'...so now what Paul? Too bad for the Bishops because ONE MORE TIME you know more than them? We already KNOW you think you know more than the Generals, Doctors and any other educated person that disagrees with you?

  • boatboy_srq on April 27, 2012 8:15 AM:

    “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.’”

    Given that the financial sector of the economy - you know, the one that nearly caused a second Great Depression with all it shenanigans, and which has been deemed critical to restoring our economic health - is a system entirely devoted to lending, and hence, debt, this is without a doubt one of the most singularly stupid things Ryan has said yet.

    Put another way: if Ryan is at all serious about this item, then we're one step closer to closing all investment banks (and most regular banks) in the US as illegal and immoral enterprises. And there's not one word in any of Ryan's statements about what all those investment bankers, accountants and other professionals now employed in the finance industry would do for jobs, or about how devastating it would be if our businesses (you know, the ones that actually make things) cannot obtain loans or if our citizens cannot get mortgages or build resources for retirement.

    I'm hardly a fan of the current financial system, and I don't think too highly of using debt instruments as income/wealth generators. But if a public official lauded as a policy wonk for his party denounces all debt as immoral then we're in a lot more trouble than we thought.