Jonathan Chait

Paul Ryan's Non-Ideological Pose

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The very Washington controversy du jour centers whether President Obama's speech on the budget Wednesday was partisan. Deeply wounded Republicans are complaining that it was, in a Washington Post story that sympathetically conveys their complaint:

The three Republican congressmen saw it as a rare ray of sunshine in Washington’s stormy budget battle: an invitation from the White House to hear President Obama lay out his ideas for taming the national debt.

They expected a peace offering, a gesture of goodwill aimed at smoothing a path toward compromise. But soon after taking their seats at George Washington University on Wednesday, they found themselves under fire for plotting “a fundamentally different America” from the one most Americans know and love.

And here was Obama, the dark could of partisanship covering over the bright blue sky of bipartisan accord. The brute! Asked if Obama delivered a partisan speech, White House spokesman Jay Carney naturally denies it.

Of course, Obama's speech was partisan. He was recognizing that the budget debate reflects a stark partisan divide over basic values. yet the genius of Paul Ryan has been to frame a debate over values as a largely ideology-free exercise in accounting. Ryan objects to progressive taxation and the modern welfare state in philosophical terms. But since most Americans disagree -- they want no cuts in Medicare at all and higher taxes on the rich -- Ryan must present his case, in pecuniary terms, as I argued last week:

In the days before his star turn as America’s Accountant, Ryan once appeared at a gathering to honor her philosophy, where he announced, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” He continues to view Rand as a lodestar, requiring his staffers to digest her creepy tracts.

When Ryan warns of the specter of collapse, he is not merely referring to the alarming gap between government outlays and receipts, as his admirers in the media assume. (Every policy change of the last decade that increased the deficitthe Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the wars in Afghanistan and IraqRyan voted for.) He is also invoking Rand’s almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse. That is the crisis his Path to Prosperity seeks to avert.

Obama is perfectly aware of this. His speech was so wounding to conservatives because he exposed the philosophical stakes they have labored to obscure. What's more, Obama understands the phoniness of Ryan's pose as earnest budget wonk. CBS caught him speaking to donors apparently unaware of being recorded:

"When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, he's just being America's accountant ... This is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill -- but wasn't paid for," Mr. Obama told his supporters. "So it's not on the level."

Of course, it is certainly possible for both parties to address the deficit as an accounting exercise, without trying to later the philosophical basis of the social contract. But that is not what Ryan is attempting.

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