Harsh Moderation

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The next possible government shutdown date is October 1, 2015, instead of January 16, 2014.  That is true because the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives managed to pass the Murrary-Ryan budget agreement, which I discussed  yesterday here on Dorf on Law.

What was the price paid to change the next date on which Republicans could self-destruct?  The acceptance of some (although admittedly not all) of the sequestration-related cuts in domestic spending, the end of unemployment benefits for well over a million people in less than three weeks (and a very high risk that those benefits will never be restored, while hundreds of thousands more people will lose their benefits), and the continued validation of the idea that Republicans can refuse to allow any but the most minor and hidden (and regressive) taxes to be included in a budget deal.  This, ladies and gentleman, is moderation today.

The larger picture, however, was captured perfectly in Paul Krugman's NYT op-ed this morning.  Even more than usual, that column is a must-read.  In particular, he make two essential points.  First, this budget deal -- even as it is being decried by the lunatic right, and celebrated by Beltway pundits as a victory for reasonableness and compromise -- is merely part of a bigger picture in which the conservative attack on government has been wildly successful.  Although even some liberal pundits have approvingly described the final deal as almost literally a split-the-difference agreement between the Senate Democrats' plan and House Republicans' plan, that is a seriously distorted view of what counts as the middle of anything.  Senate Democrats started by giving away the store, so that "compromise" ended up essentially endorsing the shrunken government that Republicans have extorted over the last three years.

Second, Krugman points out that nearly all of the so-called moderate cuts that conservatives have succeeded in extracting from Democrats have come from government spending programs that invest in the future.  Hundreds of thousands of teachers have been laid off, worker retraining programs have been cut, and infrastructure spending has been cut so deeply that we are actually disinvesting by failing to rebuild and replace our assets as they decay and fall apart.  Regular readers of this blog know that I am a bit obsessed with how today's policies affect future generations (among a plethora of examples, see Dorf on Law posts here and here, and law review articles here, here, and here).  This new mockery of moderation guarantees a poorer future for the children of everyone but the wealthy, and it does nothing to reverse the trends toward greater inequality that will tilt most future increases in prosperity toward those fortunate few.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the response to the Murray-Ryan bill, however, is the completely unmerited elevation of Rep. Paul Ryan to the status of "reasonable guy."  Here is Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate (and a man who is often bizarrely described by the Beltway's centrism-obsessed pundits as a prime example of unacceptably extreme liberal Democrats), speaking after yesterday's House vote: “The benefits of this agreement will go far beyond the actual agreement itself.  What we have seen in the Senate over the last several months, and now in the House, led by the courage of Congressman Ryan, is mainstream conservatives standing up to the hard right and saying: ‘This is no good for America. This is no good for the Republican Party. We’re not going to follow the Tea Party, like Thelma and Louise, over a cliff.’ ”

I understand that, in the aftermath of a legislative accomplishment, it is de rigueur to praise one's opponents, even to the point of excess.  But when one does that, it is also a good idea at least not to completely ignore reality.  In what world is Ryan not a member of the "hard right," or an ally of the Tea Party?

Ryan, after all, is fervently committed to the no-new-taxes nonsense embraced by his fellow Republicans, especially taxes that are in any way progressive.  He wants to eliminate the Social Security and Medicare programs, replacing them with "market-based" systems based on his devotion to a philosophy that he found in a novel that he read in college.  He decries the Fed's attempts to use monetary policy to do anything but fight non-existent inflation.  He believes that efforts to help the poor are evil liberal dependency traps, such that his explanation for long-term poverty is that it is all the government's fault for making people satisfied to rely on the government's "hammock."  And he does this all while pretending to be a budget wonk, when in fact he literally just makes up numbers to provide fake support to his preferred ideological agenda.

And that is only on the economic side of the ledger.  Although Ryan, a Roman Catholic, is willing to flout the Church's teachings on economic policy, he takes a back seat to no one when it comes to the social issues with which, according to Pope Francis, American Catholics have been wrongly obsessed.  Gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and all the rest of the craziness.  That is Paul Ryan.

But he permitted a percentage or two more spending than his ideological compatriots would have liked, which now magically makes him not "hard right."  The degradation of American political discourse continues apace.