A Big Vision of Small-Mindedness

by Neil H. Buchanan

I have frequently commented on situations in which the press writes pieces using words like "bold" and "serious" and "leadership" to describe Republican politicians' views and proposals that are anything but bold or serious, and that show no leadership.  My attacks are usually aimed at The New York Times (see, e.g., this recent Dorf on Law post), which is certainly not the worst culprit in this regard, but because The Times is the most important news source in the world, it matters when it gives someone a free pass.

Happily, the Times assigned arguably their best reporter, David M. Herszenhorn, to write an article summarizing a speech that the new House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered earlier this week.  Although the headline for the article, "Ryan Throws Down Republican Gauntlet in Outlining House Agenda for ’16," is a bit grandiose, headlines are generally not written by the reporter, and in any case it is reasonably accurate to say that Ryan really was doing something along the lines of making a statement about how the Republicans plan to challenge Democrats between now and Election Day.

The short summary of the article on the main page of The Times website reads as follows: "Drawing a vivid contrast with Democrats and the Obama administration, Paul Ryan, the new speaker of the House, vowed to pursue legislation that will frame a stark choice for voters next year."  But what is most interesting about Herszenhorn's article is that, although he appropriately describes Ryan's apparent intent, the report of what Ryan actually said reveals that there is nothing at all specific or memorable about it.  "Our No. 1 goal for the next year is to put together a complete alternative to the left’s agenda."  OK, no surprise there.  "Only government that sends power back to the people can make America confident again."  This is notable, if at all, only because it represents another attempt by right-wingers to adopt rhetoric from the 1960's left ("Power to the people!").  Otherwise, any politician of any stripe might utter such a statement.  No big contrast between Republicans and Democrats is yet in sight.

We must take Herszenhorn at his word when he describes the speech's "sweeping oratory and careful stagecraft."  The more interesting issue is that, although "it was clear Mr. Ryan was aiming to step decisively into the role of the Republican Party’s leader in Washington," Ryan apparently decided that being his party's leader involves little more than sniping and repeating vague policy goals that are familiar to anyone who has been following his strange path to being the closest thing the Republicans have to a big thinker (notwithstanding his very small thoughts)

Ryan promised to "give the people a real choice" and "show what we would do, what our ideal policy would be," yet Herszenhorn then notes that Ryan "offered few specifics."  Later, the article notes that the speech "was designed less to lay out specific policy proposals than to chart a flight path for House Republicans for the remainder of Mr. Obama’s presidency."  Surprised?

Here are the issues that Ryan addressed: "a sweeping overhaul of the tax code," "develop[ing] trade agreements that would benefit American manufacturers," and "strengthen[ing] the military, particularly given the rising threat from the Islamic State."  Without details, however, there is nothing bold there.  What Democrat would say that those are bad goals?

Other than making snarky remarks about President Obama -- essentially exulting in the Republicans' success in dividing the country, and then blaming it on the president -- the closest Ryan came to saying something that people might actually disagree with is that "Government is always a step behind."  That, however, is warmed-over Reagan rhetoric, not the stuff of a grand policy speech.

But perhaps the most interesting insight into Ryan's strange view of his own policy agenda came when he said that Republicans "believe in the American idea: The condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life."  Let us leave aside for now the Republicans' insistence that the American idea only applies to current Americans, rather than being a beacon for, say, people who suffer under tyranny and terror elsewhere and yearn to breathe free.  Even looking at current Americans and their children and grandchildren, for the leader of the party that has spent a generation trying to repeal the estate tax (the "death tax" -- in their constantly repeated mischaracterization) to say that they stand for the idea of equal opportunity at birth is jaw-dropping.

Ryan's party has been committed to making sure that the condition of one's birth, such as being born into poverty or with parents who cannot take care of their children, can never be overcome.  Ryan's infatuation with "dependency theory," which says that people are lulled into dependency when they receive handouts rather than being forced to work hard like Real Americans, has been used to justify cuts in nearly every program in existence that actually tries to allow people to overcome the conditions of their birth.  Children's health insurance, Head Start, food stamps, and on and on.  The problem with dependency theory (or, I should say, one of the many problems with that theory) is that the harsh effort to make adults sink or swim has effects on children who have no control over what their parents do.  And then, when those children grow up to become less productive than they could have been, they are blamed for being defective adults.

In what is surely the most inadvertently funny thing that Ryan has ever said, he assured his listeners that Republicans "do not see politics as a popularity contest. To us, it is a calling. We do not care for the tricks of the trade. What we love are ideas.”  Yes, they love ideas.  Bad ideas.  Bad, failed ideas.  Bad, failed ideas that are especially likely to harm children and to reinforce class divisions.