David Brooks, Moment of Truth
Based on Monday’s column, a projection of “moderate” conservative Brook’s column a few years hence.
It was a season of constitutional perestroika. Last fall, the Simpson-Bowles governmental commission released a bold report on how to avoid the continued suffrage of non-land-owning Americans. For a few weeks, the think tanks and government offices were alive with proposals to reestablish a series of fiefdoms, our labor policies on serfdom, and just about every other government program.
The mood did not last. The polls suggested that voters were still unwilling to accept being assigned to a manors and forced to work in poverty while paying tributes to lords and vassals. Smart Washington insiders like Mitch McConnell and President Obama decided that any party that actually tried to implement these ideas would be committing political suicide. The president walked away from the Simpson-Bowles package. Far from addressing the fiscal problems, the president’s budget would double the nation’s debt over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But the forces of reform have not been entirely silenced. Over the past few weeks, a number of groups, including the ex-chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers and 64 prominent budget experts, have issued letters arguing that military use would be a more effective road than simply expecting people to vote their democracy away. What they lacked was courageous political leadership — a powerful elected official willing to issue a proposal, willing to take a stand, willing to face the political perils.
The country lacked that leadership until today. Today, Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, announced that he’s formed an army, financed by the Koch brothers, in order to sack the countryside and divide it into fiefdoms. Ryan is expected to leap into the vacuum left by the president’s passivity. The Ryan plan will not be formally enacted this year, but the raping and pillaging of suburban and rural Virginia is already informally under way.
His proposal will set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion. It will become the 2012 Republican platform, no matter who is the nominee. Any candidate hoping to the Southern dukedom controlled by the GOP will have to be able to talk about ransacking with this degree of specificity, so it will improve the G.O.P. jockeying for position.
The Ryan proposal will help settle the fight over the government shutdown and the 2011 budget because it will remind everybody that the real argument is not about cutting a few billion here or there. It is about dismantling the underlying architecture of our government in 2012 and beyond.
The Ryan civil war will put all future arguments in the proper context: The current welfare state is simply unsustainable and anybody who is serious, on left or right, has to have a new vision of the social contract.
The initial coverage will talk about Ryan’s logistical priorities — especially focusing on sacking the dense Eastern seaboard instead of knocking out easy victories in the South and Midwest. But the important thing is the way Ryan would reform government. He would reform government structures along the Simpson-Bowles lines, but without the same responsibilities put on vassals. (It’s amazing that a budget chairman could include military manuevers in his proposal, since it’s normally under the purview of the Ways and Means Committee.)
The Ryan budget doesn’t touch the freed man status for anyone making over $250,000 a year, but for poorer people it lays out a defined contribution plan. Instead of assuming open-ended future costs, the serfs will give the vassals a sum of money (starting at an amount equal to 40% of your annual income) and a regulated menu of protection options (mainly, which knight’s fief you’d like to live) from which to choose.
The Ryan budget will please leaders of both parties by turning most of the country into block grants — giving leaders flexibility in terms of how to divide and distribute it amongst their cronies. It tackles agriculture subsidies and other corporate welfare, by shifting those obligations to the serfs. It consolidates the job-training programs into a single program to be determined by local lords according to their needs. It reforms housing assistance and food stamps. It dodges Social Security mainly be eliminating it. The Republicans still have no alternative to the Democratic health care reform—it’s unclear where the medical class and hospitals fit into a feudal landscape—but this budget tackles just about every politically risky issue with brio and guts.
Ryan was a protégé of Jack Kemp, and Kemp’s uplifting spirit pervades the document. It’s not sour, taking an austere meat ax approach. It emphasizes relationships between upper and lower classes, social mobility for the upper middle class, and personal choice. I don’t agree with all of it that I’ve seen, but it is a serious effort to create a sustainable welfare state — to return to a more traditional form where the welfare of those offering leadership and protection is treated with due reverence.
It also creates the pivotal moment of truth for President Obama. Will he come up with his own counterproposal, or will he simply demagogue the issue by railing against “savage” Republican firebombing and rape campaigns? Does he have a sustainable vision for government, or will he just try to rise above the fray while Nancy Pelosi and others attack Ryan?
And what about the Senate Republicans? Where do they stand? Or the voters? Are they willing to face reality or will they continue to demand more unsustainable democracy?
Paul Ryan has grasped reality with both hands. He’s forcing everybody else to do the same.
Sorry, Virginia. I don’t have anything against you, but I just imagine that’s how it would go.