David Brooks vs. Paul Ryan
Today the American Enterprise Institute held an unusual debate. Unusual because the participants, David Brooks of the New York Times and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin agreed on so much. Brooks said he had a copy of the Ryan-Rivlin plan on his wall, while others have Farrah Fawcett. (Ryan cracked, "Who's Farrah Fawcett?") Ryan agreed with Brooks's premise that we need "energetic government." But it was nevertheless a lively exchange.
The genesis of the debate was a set of columns -- one by Ryan and AEI chief Arthur Brooks in the Wall Street Journal and one by David Brooks in the Times. Ryan argued for limited government while Brooks argued that conservatives have misrepresented, or at least mischaracterized limited government. I previously blogged on the topic, suggesting that Brooks was in essence confusing Ryan with another Paul -- Ron Paul. Ryan has never been in favor of "no government," and, indeed, his column in the Journal specifically denied intention to rip out items like social security. The debate picked up where the dueling columns left off.
As I had surmised, Ryan argued that there is a "false choice" between limited government and energetic government, in fact making the argument that "energetic government must be limited" or it will collapse under its own weight, as we've seen in the European debt crisis and as we soon will face if we do not control entitlements. He cited with admiration "energetic" Republicans such as Rudy Giuliani, Mitch Daniels, Tommy Thompson and Jeb Bush who pioneered vigorous, reform-minded policies. He argued that what is actually at issue in current discussions over taxes and the budget deficit is whether we will have "an opportunity society with a circumscribed safety net" or a "cradle to grave" welfare state that looks more like Western Europe. He cited the social anarchy that has broken out in the form of riots in Greece, Britain and France, which now must rein in their social welfare programs to avoid bankruptcy. What is at issue, he concluded from these events, is that limited government is not merely a matter of dollars, but of "moral decay." He then touted his Ryan-Rivlin entitlement plan, which substitutes defined contribution plans (i.e. a set amount of money given to individuals to secure health-care coverage) for defined benefit plans, which are open ended commitments to purchase insurance for people.
Brooks, sensing he was on semi-hostile ground at the conservative meeting room at AEI, began with a blend of humor and praise for Ryan, who he dubbed "the most intellectually formidable member of the House." (Ryan shot back, "That's not saying much.") The argument he then put forth related to what he termed "narrative." He likes the Ryan-Rivlin plan. What he is concerned about is how Republicans have framed the argument: big vs. little government. Instead, he wants to talk about culture, specifically whether government does things to enhance the public culture (e.g. encouraging independence and literacy) or undermine culture. He thinks Republicans are too alarmist about the debt and too eager to draw lines in the sand that will lead to gridlock. The Obama officials, he assured the group, aren't European welfare state proponents, they are just liberals who want a little more redistribution. (Much muttering and seat-shifting from the crowd on that one.)
In the response round, Ryan -- to the amusement of the crowd -- explained that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner were one thing, but there were plenty of Democrats in Congress talking about reinventing America. Therefore, he asserted the ideological choice really is quite stark. He cautioned that the deficit numbers are "vicious" and, therefore, we need to focus the country on real fiscal reform based on low tax rates, sound money, regulation that eschews "crony capitalism" and spending control. The alternative, he says, is simply "managed decline." Brooks got a laugh when, in response, he expressed relief that he did not have to sit in the House with Nancy Pelosi or David Obey. He then accused the Republicans in Congress of being too inflexible. If they were offered 99 percent spending cuts and 1 percent tax hikes, he asserted, they'd turn it down. He returned to his argument that we should focus on the type of culture we want to have and will need to accept a certain amount of "paternalistic government" to address issues like income inequality.
So what did we learn, other than Brooks has a very good sense of humor? (Being the conservative at the Times, he joked, is like "being the rabbi in Mecca.") The debate teased out three important issues. First, the extreme left is becoming politically isolated. Both Brooks and Ryan agreed that there is a powerful center-right coalition that takes deficit control seriously and understands that major changes in the entitlement programs are required. Second, we learned that Brooks has a vocabulary that can resonate with voters who aren't partisan conservatives. If Republicans link deficit control to generational responsibility and explain reform is not designed to leave seniors and the needy out in the cold, but, indeed, to prevent the system's collapse, they may get more support for their proposals. And finally, the event highlighted how civil the debate can be -- but is unlikely to be -- as the weeks and months of debate unfold. In short, Pelosi is no David Brooks. If she were, we could fix this whole mess right now.
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