Amidst the vast plumes of rhetorical homages to freedom and entrepreneurship and the evils of central planning, there was but one small moment in Paul Ryan’s speech when he actually spelled out what his abstract rhetorical formulations really mean. It came when he assailed President Obama for cutting Medicare — cuts that Ryan now finds unconscionable but had proposed to maintain until a few weeks ago, but never mind — for what he called “a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for.”
This is actually true — one of the few clear truths in a speech sorely lacking them. But what does this mean?
Obama was indeed trying to turn access to health insurance into an entitlement. Ryan and his fellow Republicans have made various gestures toward the notion of some kind of plan of their own to provide access to health insurance for people who can’t afford it, but they have never been willing to devote the necessary resources. Here was Ryan actually assailing not the method but the goal, implicitly conceding his position that health insurance is not an entitlement but a nice thing everybody would like but not everybody can have, like a beach house.
The political logic embedded in Ryan’s formulation was even more telling. He dismissed the goal of providing health insurance to those who can’t afford it as something “we didn’t even ask for.” Who is “we”? We is the majority of Americans who do have health insurance. We outnumber the 50 million who don’t. They can go screw themselves. Ryan actually called Obama’s decision to cut what he deemed wasteful spending in Medicare to cover the uninsured his “coldest power play.” It is a cold power play to give medical care to people who can’t get it, and an act of compassion to take it away from them.
The political blogosphere has taken apart Ryan’s brazen dishonesty brick by brick so that barely anything remains. I have been writing about his dishonesty for three years. I have the equivalent of a master’s degree in Ryan lie-ology. I’ve heard many of his lurid fantasies innumerable times and I haven’t got it in me to go through it all again — his deep dishonesty largely reflects the fundamental gap between the radicalism of his agenda and his need for public acceptance. I’ll merely point out that, even if all the smaller component dishonesties of Ryan’s speech were true, the larger points they undergirded were false as well.
Ryan began by castigating Obama for borrowing money to fund a stimulus. He then castigated Obama for making his “first order of business” the passage of health-care reform rather than economic rescue, when Ryan himself had just told the audience that the first thing Obama had done was actually to pass a plan intended to rescue the economy. Having argued that Obama erred by distracting himself with health care rather than devote all his energies to the recovery, Ryan immediately promised he and Romney would repeal Obamacare — wouldn’t that also possibly distract from their own economic focus?
In the same vein, Ryan told unemployed Americans, “if you're feeling passed by, you have not failed, your leaders have failed you” — and then, moments later, sneered that Obama saw economically struggling Americans as “victims of circumstances beyond our control.” Ryan believes fervently that Obama’s failures are the sole exception to the general rule that individuals are the masters of their own economic fate. To bolster his claim that people move in and out of economic classes constantly without government intervention, Ryan described a few menial short-term jobs he had performed in his early years, boasting, “I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life” — as if, but for his own gumption and elbow grease, the heir to one of the richest families in his town was really at risk of staying in his summer lawn-mowing job forever.
At the political level, Ryan’s notion of responsibility beggars belief. Under the Bush administration, Republicans — with Ryan’s support and often active leadership — systematically destroyed the fiscal position of the federal government. They voted for large tax cuts, a new entitlement, wars, and twice repealed pay-as-you-go budget rules that would have required them to pay for all these things. As a result, when Obama took office at the outset of the economic crisis, he inherited an annual deficit of well over a trillion dollars.
Obama tried on numerous occasions to craft bipartisan agreements to reduce the long-term debt. Ryan, using the enormous intra-party influence he had amassed, crushed those agreements at every turn. Ryan voted against the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, killing its prospects. To complete the dishonesty, Ryan referred to the debt commission he served on and helped kill as “they,” not “we.” (Ryan’s defenders sometimes assert that he only voted against the plan because it failed to include privatized Medicare, but in fact Ryan opposed a compromise that would do that, as well.) Ryan killed a bipartisan Senate plan and also killed a negotiated debt settlement between Obama and John Boehner.
Part of Ryan’s logic at the time (according to two sources, one in each party) was that signing a deal “would pave the way for Mr. Obama’s easy reelection.” This was a plausible calculation — agreeing to a deficit compromise would have made it hard for Republicans to run against Obama as a left-wing spendthrift. And here was Ryan last night, running against Obama as a left-wing spendthrift, precisely as his own strategy enabled.
Incredibly, the larger theme of Ryan’s speech was to assail Obama for failing to take full responsibilities for this state of affairs — Obama is “shifting blame,” “blaming others.” It is the single largest motif of Ryan’s speech. Let’s review: Ryan helps to create a massive structural deficit, repeatedly and almost single-handedly prevents a solution, then runs for vice-president, blaming Obama for the structural deficit and further blaming him for his unwillingness to agree that this is all his own fault. The really amazing thing is that it could possibly work.