Ryan Pushes the Camel’s Nose Under the Tent

Boy, it’s quite the week for Paul Ryan’s pushback against criticism from his co-religionists. First he announced a preference for the metaphysics and epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas over those of St. Ayn Rand during a friendly interview with National Review. Then he took himself over to Georgetown University to defend the compatibility of his budgetary handiwork with Catholic social teachings, which he certainly felt the need to do after a couple of tongue-lashings from the Bishops and from a large group of Catholic theologians and social services providers.

As Jonathan Easley explained in a useful account of the speech at The Hill, Ryan (who ignored some very visible protesters) mainly relied on the argument that the “fiscal crisis” facing the country trumped any concern over his budget’s impact on the poor and vulnerable:

“The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt,” Ryan said. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.'”

Ryan painted a bleak future for the United States if the country is unable to get its debt under control.

“If our generation fails to meet its defining challenge, we would see America surrender her independence to the army of foreign creditors who now own roughly half of our public debt.”

Ryan used that kind of heavy, existential language throughout, which may explain the ease with which he is able to dismiss criticism: If the looming economic crisis is what he says it is, it would seem to provide a moral defense for his budget. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), also a Catholic, has made a similar defense of the GOP budget.

It’s interesting that Ryan took this tack instead of claiming, as he did during a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, that his budget was precisely the sort of bracing moral tonic poor people needed, afflicted as they were by dependence on public assistance and a distressingly light tax burden. Perhaps no social encyclicals came to hand in defense of that proposition.

But it’s clear he had a limited objective before this relatively hostile audience: establishing that his point of view was one of many legitimate interpretations of Catholic social teachings:

“I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts … not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church,” the House Budget Committee chairman said. “Of course, there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this.

“The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it. What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day.”

You have your opinion, I have mine, so let’s not get all judgmental about it, Ryan seemed to be saying. It’s a remarkably similar get-the-camel’s-nose-under-the-tent approach to the one he’s taken to deal with criticism from progressives generally, with the occasional assist from the White House and deficit-hawk Democrats: since we all agree there’s this terrible fiscal crisis, then come let us reason together on how to control entitlement spending and undertake tax reform, shall we?

It’s definitely part of the pattern whereby Ryan has managed simultaneously to become the maximum hero of hard-core conservatives who view him as their champion in the effort to roll back the New Deal and Great Society, and a respected intellectual in Beltway circles with whom Democrats can conduct good-faith negotiations. I’ve wondered how he keeps pulling this off; it seems his secret is the ability to find and defend the tiniest scrap of common ground with people who ought to view him like a firebug in a library.

No wonder he’s on Mitt Romney’s running-mate short list!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.