Explain Your Principles, Please

Today’s opening meditation, coinciding with the beginning of that annual speechapaloosa of the Right, CPAC, is from a belligerant remark made by Paul Ryan in an interview with National Review‘s Andrew Stiles, responding to incredulity that he’s back with more or less the same old budget for the third time:

Even some conservatives have questioned the idea of refighting old battles, as opposed to confronting the new reality with new solutions. But Ryan is sticking to his guns. “So just because the election didn’t go our way, that means we’re supposed to change our principles? We’re supposed to just go along to get along? We reject that view,” he tells National Review Online in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “A budget is supposed to be a display of your vision,” he adds. “Our vision is a world without Obamacare.”

Ryan points out that Obama was not the only one who was returned to power in 2012; House Republicans maintained their majority. “We’re here, and we won our elections based on limited government, economic freedom, and we should not shy away from espousing those views,” he says.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard those words expressed by conservative ideologues so many times you barely register their content anymore: conservative principles, conservative principles, limited government, freedom, bark bark woof woof. Ryan may rely for his reputation in D.C. on a perception that he is some sort of genius-wonk, but the reason “the base” went nuts with joy when Mitt Romney lifted him to the national ticket last year is that right-wing activists believe he’s found a way to reflect their “conservative principles” in a blizzard of numbers.

But if you get out of the trance-state of believing everything Ryan says, and that his fans say about him, do his budgets actually reflect, or disguise, his “principles?”

Let me once again quote a key paragraph of Ryan’s speech last November at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner wherein he discussed his “vision,” which is a world not only without Obamacare, but without any real public safety net:

Not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone. Americans are a compassionate people. And there’s a consensus in this country about our obligations to the most vulnerable. Those obligations are beyond dispute. The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government – by voluntary action or by government action.

Think about this approach for a minute. Ryan begins from the premise that the free market will if left alone solve most social and economic problems; you don’t even get into the discussion of a public role until we’re talking about “the most vulnerable.” And once we are there, the conservative side of the argument is to press for “voluntary action” by “private groups”–i.e., public abandonment, perhaps with a tax credit and hearty good wishes, but abandonment all the same.

Is that what you get when you peel back all the numbers and look for Ryan’s “principles?” I guess so, since the numbers themselves are actually pretty opaque. Why won’t Ryan specify the impact his spending assumptions would have on non-defense discretionary spending? Why won’t he address what happens to the Medicare “premium support” payment if all the market magic he’s assuming does not radically reduce health care inflation? If his “vision” is that federal support for and regulation of the program we now call Medicaid is to whither away, why not say so? Why go through the subterfuge of a “block grant” if the idea is that states would eventually liberate the poor from dependence on this program as they compete to cut costs and reduce eligibility?

And why, in the third iteration of his budget, why does Ryan remain unwilling to specify the content of that vast magic asterisk he identifies as “tax reform?”

Sure, all these evasions can be justified on Machiavellian grounds, but I thought we were talking about a bold expression of “conservative principle,” a “vision” here, not some mendacious effort to sneak “principle” through the bedroom window!

But this should come as no surprise after a 2012 campaign in which Ryan outdid Romney in posing as the maximum champion of Medicare because he opposed reductions in provider payments even though he included those same reductions in his own budget, and is doing so again today. What “principles” did that Medagoguery reflect? What “vision” are we supposed to glimpse? A world in which wealthier people over 55–which also happen to be the most pro-Republican group of people in the electorate–are insulated from any budget cuts while mothers with children under the poverty line are asked to make “sacrifices?” Spell it out, Paul Ryan!

It’s not just Ryan, of course. Republican pols generally are reluctant to tell us how they envision the country’s future. This is why when they occasionally let the mask slip and attack the New Deal or “government schools” or the very idea of income taxes or popular election of senators or any limitation on property rights or any concept of reproductive rights or any “entitlement” to public resources among those people–they are greeted with a feral roar of recognition and joy from the activist base for telling it like it is.

That is precisely what Paul Ryan won’t do. So love him or hate it, but let’s have less sanctimonious talk from him and his conservative fans about his “principles” and “vision.” He’s hiding both.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.