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Posted at 1:26 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

David Brooks vs. Paul Ryan

By Jennifer Rubin

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.

By Jennifer Rubin  | December 2, 2010; 1:26 PM ET
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WOW Jennifer

you have a really loyal following that you bring to the Washington Post

Posted by: RainForestRising | December 2, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Paul Ryan is a hypocrite. He voted for No Child Left Behind, the Prescription Drug Benefit, and TARP.

Posted by: Inagua1 | December 2, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse


Thanks, thanks very much. I'll take the time to read your coverage of an event such as the one you've described. It's your polite intelligence that draws my attention to your efforts.

Suspect a lot more of us would be leaving comments here if the Post hadn't a long history of disdain and dislike for a large portion of wage earning America. And, for the first time inyears I registered online with a newspaper - usually I ask myself, Why would I trouble myself to give information to people that
loathe my POV.

Posted by: llabeck | December 2, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

of what value is this?
Paul Ryan is a hypocrite. He voted for No Child Left Behind, the Prescription Drug Benefit, and TARP.


I mean, so what? It seems to me that some folks demand that no one ever, ever change their mind. If Mr Ryan thought they were right then, does it mean that he thinks they are right now?

If the best you've got is the lame and tired charge of hypocrasy, you're not going to fare well in the coming debates.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | December 2, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

If we are going to wait around for pure, sinless politicians to get our spending problems under control, we'll still be waiting when Greece's fate befalls us in about 15 years.

Posted by: jmpickett | December 2, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse


If Ryan has admitted error in voting for No Child left Behind and the Presription Drug Benefit, then I missed it, and I apologise. I do know that today he refused to endorse the Deficit Commission proposal in part because it failed to address the medical costs that his vote helped to raise.

Posted by: Inagua1 | December 2, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

What else do we learn from this column?

That Jennifer Rubin is terrific. She not only fathoms the knitty gritty and subtleties of a great many subject, she writes quickly, easily, with clarity and punch.

I admired her on the Contentions' blog. She carried it from early morning to the afternoon, like a strong man holding a dozen people aloft at the circus; and I am delighted at this enhanced exposure via the Washington Post.

Posted by: nacllcan | December 2, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

"In short, Pelosi is no David Brooks. If she were, we could fix this whole mess right now." --Jennifer Rubin

Ms. Rubin, I'm not a Pelosi fan, but there has been very little civility on either side of the aisle these last few years. And the recent stance of the GOP Senators and the way they presented it to their Democratic counterparts shows no hint of civility at all.

Further, it's clear from the recent debt reduction report that "the mess" we're in will take far longer than a few years to resolve. So it's misleading to claim that Pelosi or anyone, whether civil or not, could "fix this whole mess right now."

And I think you're intelligent enough to understand that.

Posted by: MsJS | December 2, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

I am not at all pleased that Paul Ryan is warmly interacting with big government Republican David Brooks. This could be really bad news. Brooks is a member of the so-called establishment. He is part of the problem.

Posted by: DavidThomson | December 2, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

David Brooks is a sputtering fool.

Posted by: MrMeaner | December 2, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

I live in WI. I appreciate Ryan's efforts, and am thrilled that Obey is gone. Pelosi is toxic to the system. Her poll numbers support that perception.

Here is the big problem now in the US. Obama was hired to represent ALL AMERICANS. Many on the right even voted for him BELIEVING he would frequently enough see their more conservative position. They got snookered and Obama has lost those people for good. I am one of those conservatives that would like civility instead of this bitter partisan yuck we have seen grown substantially in the past 2 years.

I ask anybody reading this how you would feel if you were McConnell, the top ranking republican that has had ONE meeting with Obama in two years? Obama made a calculated decision to flat out ignore republicans because he didn't feel he needed them for any piece of legislation. He could always use executive powers to circumvent legislation that didn't go his way. No climate change bill - no problem, just give more power to the EPA. That sort of decision making, or more like how the sausage is made, is why the US is turning from better to bitter.

I repeat, the president has a duty to represent ALL AMERICANS, not just unions, minorities, fat-cat bankers, and of course Wall Street. How about main street USA?

Posted by: jkachmar | December 2, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

Democrats and Republicans have very different basic beliefs about what will be best for America. They occasionally are in agreement about a policy, but usually adversarial, and attempting to convince their opposition to see the light.

This is the way it's supposed to be, and what the Founders intended. They're supposed to fight and argue and debate, and hopefully the best argument will prevail. (Though it is often simply raw numbers).

In spite of it all, Congressmen are usually pretty civil to each other. Often respectful and not too often vicious. Civility is not the goal. Good policy is, and you don't usually get there by surrendering and giving in.

Posted by: theelephantschild | December 2, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

Jennifer, are you the replacement for Marc Thiessen? I hope you're not an apologist for torture.

Posted by: angelos_peter | December 2, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

Jenny Poo,

Glad to see that your fellow Neocons Freddy Hiatt, Sick Willie, Charlie The Kraut, the Tortured Thiessen, and the Brothers Kagan got you this cushy gig with Lally Weymouth's little slice of less than heaven.

Funny, though. Unlike John P. Normanson's house, you cannot censor all comments at WaPo. That means you'll have to take some criticism, Jenny Poo. Vegas is giving me 2:5 odds that you'll censor all comments on your blog by Feb. 1, 2010. Get your bets down now before the window closes.

Posted by: MarkinJC | December 3, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Funny, but Jenny Poo did NOT give readers of The Washington Post the full, complete, and accurate story about Mr. Brooks's comments regarding Mr. Ryan.

Here's a very interesting, direct quote from Mr. Brooks at AEI regarding Mr. Ryan and Conservatives now in federal office that Jenny Poo failed to provide to readers of The Washington Post:

Per David Brooks:

"And my problem with the Republican Party right now, including Paul, is that if you offered them 80-20, they say no. If you offered them 90-10, they'd say no. If you offered them 99-1 they'd say no. And that's because we've substituted governance for brokerism, for rigidity that Ronald Regan didn't have.

"And to me, this rigidity comes from this polarizing world view that they're a bunch of socialists over there. You know, again, I've spent a lot of time with the president. I've spent a lot of time with the people around him. They're liberals! ... But they're not idiots. And they're not Europeans, and they don't want to be a European welfare state. ... It's American liberalism, and it's not inflexible."

VERY INTERESTING. Wonder why Jenny Poo declined to provide this quote to readers of The Washington Post? Sick Willie Kristol just gets the facts wrong. Charlie The Kraut flip-flops like an Olympic gymnast. Georgie Boy Will makes it up as he goes along.

Jenny Poo, it seems, simply omits those facts that fail to conform to her polemic.

Posted by: MarkinJC | December 3, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I'm always astonished by the depths of childishness that the anonymity of internet comment boards tends to elicit. Regardless, an excellent summary of a very fascinating debate between two very bright and earnest conservatives. Would that more of that kind of debate were part of the public sphere.

Conservatives who dismiss David Brooks out of hand are narrow ideologues with no appreciation of the conservative tradition. Markin JC is a troll. Smarter than the average troll, but still a troll.

Posted by: PaddyWagon | December 4, 2010 3:03 AM | Report abuse

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