Politics & Policy

The Ryan Express

One part FDR, one part Gipper

The liberal reaction to Paul Ryan’s budget plan makes it evident that liberals are more terrified than they’ve been since Jack Kemp (one of Ryan’s mentors) advanced supply-side economics back in the late 1970s. And although Ryan may not run for president next year, it is clear that just as Ronald Reagan had to embrace the Kemp-Roth tax-cut plan in his 1980 campaign, the eventual GOP nominee will have to embrace Ryan’s budget plan if he or she is going to be taken seriously by the party, and especially the Tea Party.

As Kemp’s understanding of supply-side economics was about more than just tax rates and revenues, Ryan’s budget architecture is about much more than just fiscal balances, and this is what terrifies liberals the most. The most interesting twist on the whole matter, though, is whether Ryan’s plan would eviscerate the welfare state (cue Nancy Pelosi, et al.), or rescue it within reasonable limits. One of the more thoughtful responses from the left comes from Jacob Weisberg at Slate.com:

If the GOP gets behind his proposals in a serious way, it will become for the first time in modern memory an intellectually serious party — one with a coherent vision to match its rhetoric of limited government. Democrats are within their rights to point out the negative effects of Ryan’s proposed cuts. . . . But the ball is now in their court, and it will be hard to take them seriously if they don’t respond with their own alternative path to debt reduction and long-term solvency.

But more significant is this Weisberg observation:

And before they reject everything in Ryan’s plan, liberals might want to consider whether some of what he proposes doesn’t in fact serve their own ultimate goals.

My pal Henry Olsen notes that in rescuing entitlement programs before they collapse of their own dead weight, Ryan is stepping up as “FDR’s savior.” And Reuters economics columnist James Pethokoukis argues that “Ryan’s revolution would finish Reagan’s,” which never really took on entitlement programs at all after an early and disastrous stumble over Social Security. No wonder liberal heads are spinning and exploding. What’s going on here? Is it FDR, or is it Reagan?

Reagan liked to argue that he and the Republicans were the true heirs to FDR, and Ryan followed Reagan in quoting Franklin Roosevelt’s famous words decrying welfare-state dependency: “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. . . . It is in violation of the traditions of America.” Liberals always hated it when Reagan quoted that passage (and FDR’s remarks on balanced budgets, too). Reagan put it this way in his memoirs:

One of his sons, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., often told me that his father had said many times his welfare and relief programs during the Depression were meant only as emergency, stopgap measures to cope with a crisis, not the seeds of what others later tried to turn into a permanent welfare state.

There are other statements of FDR’s that show the great distance today’s liberals have traveled. For example, while FDR is remembered for attacking “economic royalists,” he also said this: “Let me emphasize that serious as have been the errors of unrestrained individualism, I do not believe in abandoning the system of individual enterprise.” He expressed skepticism of ever-expanding bureaucracy: “We need trained personnel in government. We need disinterested, as well as broad-gauged, public officials. This part of our problem we have not yet solved, but it can be solved and it can be accomplished without the creation of a national bureaucracy which would dominate the national life of our governmental system.”

As Reagan observed, “As smart as he was, I suspect even FDR didn’t realize that once you create a bureaucracy, it took on a life of its own.” One hopes that these, too, might become part of Ryan’s FDR repertoire.

— Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980–1989.


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