Thursday morning’s debate between Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and New York Times columnist David Brooks at the American Enterprise Institute was billed as a contest between two competing concepts — “limited” government versus “energetic” government (see here and here for background), though it really didn’t amount to one.
Both dismissed from the outset the notion (citing as many political philosophers as they could name in one breath — Hume, Smith, Burke) that the two concepts are at odds with one another. Ryan said it was a false choice, citing the “energetic” leadership of politicians like Rudy Giuliani in New York, former Gov. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and former Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida — individuals who are widely praised by limited-government conservatives. “We should not be asking, ‘How big should our government be?’ We should be asking, ‘What is our government for?’” Ryan said.
Brooks similarly argued that obsession over the size of government was a distraction. Americans today are trapped, he said, in an abstract debate over big versus small government, which is ultimately futile. What really mattered was character. “Does government nurture or undermine good character?” Brooks said was the primary lens through which to view this debate (so much for making it less abstract).
So the debate ended up as a friendly back and forth between “energetic yet limited” government (Ryan) and “limited but energetic” government (Brooks). Or perhaps a bit more specially, between policy and politics.
Brooks said that while he largely agreed with Ryan on most policy matters, he challenged Ryan’s “framing of the issue,” that of a “polarizing choice” between a free enterprise system and a cradle-to-grave welfare state system. Politics of this nature, Brooks said, makes any sort of compromise impossible. “Paul’s prose is sometimes at war with his policy,” he said of Ryan. “His rhetoric is going to undermine some of the great things he can achieve.”
This turned out to be the practical crux of the debate: To what extent should Republicans in congress attempt to compromise with the current administration? And to what extent is the GOP’s hard-nosed opposition counterproductive?
Ryan said the nation’s dire economic outlook demanded such an uncompromising stance on fiscal matters. “The numbers are vicious,” he said. “We have to have a stark debate.” He’s not trying to be partisan, but the future of the country is at stake and the left simply gets it wrong. “How we respond to the debt crisis will determine the outcome of this debate,” he said. “We won’t be able to make these choices on the current path. We owe the country a choice.” He expressed hope that a chasm was emerging on the left that would soon separate the pragmatic (i.e. Clintonian) centrists from the intractable progressive/Pelosi wing (unfortunately, the later is about all that remains in the House), but for the time being there remains a “philosophical and pragmatic” difference between the parties.
Brooks, on the other hand, doesn’t buy the doomsday scenario, insisting that Obama and the Democrats aren’t as radical as they are made to be on the right. “Democrats don’t want a European welfare state,” he said. Our government could, and likely should, assume a an active, “hands-on” role in areas like education, for example, and still retain its good American “character.” The “absolutist dreams” of both parties — Republicans wanting to balance the budget without raising taxes and Democrats who want to eliminate the GOP and fund government by taxing the rich — risk squandering a golden opportunity for change.
At one point Brooks turned to Ryan and said that if President Obama calls and says, “’I’ll take [the] Ryan-Rivlin [Medicare/Medicaid plan] if you will take a top tax rate of 39 percent,’ I hope you will take that deal.”
Ryan said the president wasn’t likely to ever make such a call. (At the same time, it’s pretty hard to imagine any Republican accepting such a deal.) Ryan did get a call several minutes later, though. House Democrats were holding a vote to extend the so-called “middle class” tax rates — about as cynical a political act as they come. Ryan left to vote against it — to no avail.
Perhaps fittingly, the “debate,” or whatever it was, was cut short due to politics-as-usual. Or as AEI president Arthur Brooks put it: “Our debate is slightly truncated because of big government.”