REAGAN AND RYAN
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- Updated August 30, 2012, 2:10 p.m. ET
Reagan and Ryan
The resurgence of small-government conservatism.
TAMPA, Fla.–Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter thinks Paul Ryan will be president one day. Alter told us so at a late-afternoon reception at a downtown Tampa hotel sponsored by The Wall Street Journal. He also said that Ryan isn’t really a “deficit hawk” but a “small-government conservative.” To Alter, that was a criticism. To us, it is a recommendation. That disagreement is a synecdoche for the Obama-era political and ideological divide.
“What’s the difference?” asked another journalist, a British one, when we recounted the conversation later, after Ryan’s convention speech. After all, Ryan did say: “In this generation, a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time.” He is concerned about the debt, and he has plenty of reason to be.
But a mere deficit hawk wouldn’t have said this: “None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers, a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” A deficit hawk is averse, above all, to debt; a small-government conservative, to coercion. A deficit hawk doesn’t mind big government, as long as it’s paid for with high taxes.
Deficit hawkishness was the main strain of postwar Republican conservatism until the Goldwater movement of 1964. When lefties long for the “mainstream” Republicans of yore, this is a large part of what they have in mind. A conservatism that cares only about balancing the books not only fails to challenge the encroachment of the welfare state but actively aids it by taking political pressure off the left.
Here’s how politics would work in a world in which deficit hawks dominated the Republican Party: The Democrats would propose a new entitlement. Some Republicans would oppose it, but once it was clear it was going to pass, they would drop their opposition and push for tax increases instead.
It’s a win-win for the Democratic left. They not only fulfill their ideological goal of ever-expanding government, but they get the political credit for doling out benefits and they shift the blame to Republicans (or at least share it with them) for the concomitant tax increases. Conservatives are reduced, to paraphrase Newt Gingrich, to acting as tax collectors for the welfare state. With Republican cooperation, Democrats can be the party of generous benefits and low taxes. Lyndon B. Johnson dramatically expanded the former while reducing the latter.
Once small-government conservatism becomes a serious force in politics–as it did within the Republican Party after 1964 and in the country as a whole with Ronald Reagan’s ascension–that system breaks down. Democrats lose elections as the party of high taxes (Walter Mondale), or they attenuate their ideological ambitions (Bill Clinton), or they risk a debt crisis (Barack Obama). In any case, the growth of the welfare state is no longer easy or smooth.
Small-government conservatism has its pitfalls as well. As Reagan found, it’s a lot easier politically to cut taxes than spending. Result: debt. In the post-Reagan years, small-government conservatism receded within the Republican Party. George H.W. Bush ran as a small-government Reaganite (“Read my lips”), but, under pressure from congressional Democrats, governed as a deficit hawk. Later, when Republicans controlled Congress, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush governed more or less in the LBJ mold, expanding entitlements (albeit incrementally) while reducing taxes.
The resurgence of small-government conservatism, personified by Paul Ryan, owes a lot to Obama, who came to office bent on “fundamentally transforming” America–i.e., on quickly and vastly expanding the welfare state. He apparently expected this to be easy, as everything else in his life has been, but even he didn’t dare call for tax increases, except on “the rich.”
As blogger Ira Stoll notes, a recent New York Times editorial let the mask slip: “Higher taxes for top earners is [sic] necessary for the nation to begin to raise the revenue it needs. And until the rich pay more, there will never be a national consensus for tax increases on middle-income Americans, which will eventually be needed to further curb long-term deficits.”
That statement is true only if one assumes that the growth of the welfare state is inexorable, that curtailing or cutting it back is forbidden. The Times, of course, is ideologically committed to that proposition, but there is no reason the country as a whole has to be–though it would if Republicans fell in line like good little deficit hawks (an image that highlights the absurdity of the bird-of-prey metaphor).
Democrats hope to defeat the Romney-Ryan ticket by emphasizing Ryan’s proposals to reform Medicare, a popular entitlement. They may succeed, but their job is complicated because, as Ryan noted in his speech last night, ObamaCare slashes Medicare: “Even with the new law and new taxes on nearly a million small businesses, the planners in Washington still didn’t have enough money; they needed more. They needed hundreds of billions more. So they just took it all away from Medicare, $716 billion funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.”
People on both ideological sides may be vexed by Ryan’s defense of Medicare. But those on the right should take comfort that it shows the limits of the entitlement state. In the political world the left dreams of, ObamaCare would have raised taxes on everyone with the assent of conservative deficit hawks. Instead, the Republican Party re-embraced small-government conservatism, and the Democrats had to cannibalize a popular existing entitlement to pay for an unpopular new one. It’s hard to see how this ends well for the left, whether or not it ends this November.