Congressman Paul Ryan has had considerable success lately explaining the main problem with health care — and with “social democracy” — in general: it’s unsustainable. It’s an old message which has until recently taken a back seat to the idea that the welfare state was the wave of the future. OpenLeft argued that the hidden message of Star Trek was that in the future humanity would establish a socialist paradise. “The most familiar utopian socialist society would be that of the United Federation of Planets in the popular television series Star Trek – particularly that depicted in The Next Generation. There is no money, no want, no poverty, no crime, no disease or ignorance in human society; everyone works for the advancement of all humanity — as well as the rest of the Federation.”
And bizarre as it may seem, until recently many people would have agreed that socialism was the fate of mankind; that our capitalist world was but an unfortunate expedient, a necessary concession to knuckle draggers until in our enlightenment we could go out and prove our superiority to the Borg. Ryan’s great achievement was to start a hairline crack in that crystal vision; to point out that for utopia to exist we first have to afford it; and under socialism we can’t. Fortune calls Paul Ryan “Obama’s Adversary,” not just in the party politics sense, but memetically. He’s gently pointed out that Hope and Change might simply be a nightmare tricked out as a dream. But he’s made an even more radical assertion: that the world can have a future it doesn’t have to buy on credit.
Republicans aren’t the only ones suddenly taking notice of Ryan’s views on deficit reduction and government spending. During his now-famous appearance at the Republican congressional retreat in Baltimore earlier this year, the President singled out Ryan. …
Ryan got his chance to confront the President at the health-care summit Feb. 25. Seated across from Obama, Ryan addressed him directly with a six-minute, numbers-laden, wonkish analysis of the Senate bill that contradicted the administration’s pledge that the plan wouldn’t add to the mountainous deficit. … Obama steered the discussion away from Ryan’s numbers, and the White House hasn’t challenged his analysis.
The health care debate was the congressman’s great moment and the press is likely to pitch it as consequent to his own personal charisma, that fount from which all political success is believed to come. But it isn’t Ryan that bears watching so much as the sudden respectability of his message. Mario Continetti of the Weekly Standard describes him as a kind of anti-Obama in the sense that he yearns for a different heaven and fears a different hell. While “President Obama wants to reshape the American economy and welfare state so that it looks more like a Western European social democracy,” Ryan wants to build a future based on something people can actually afford, “and since fiscal policy is Ryan’s specialty, he’s become the GOP point man when it comes to entitlements and health care.” What the Congressman has on his side is arithmetic of money, which even Chris Matthews has to respect. Watch this exchange.
Matthews shrewdly asks Ryan why he thinks he can persuade voters that they can no longer have something for nothing when nobody else has before. And for a moment we catch a glimpse of a much more formidable Chris Matthews, a man who seems to have come to liberalism in part because he’s seen conservatism fail to sell. And the congressman’s riposte is simple: ‘Chris, it will sell now because the voters have no choice. The party’s over and sooner or later everyone who isn’t brain-dead has to see that.’ Entitlements have drained the treasury dry. An entire generation has blown its wad and doesn’t even have enough kids to borrow from. And as any who’s ever shaken his wallet and seen only old ATM receipts flutter out of it, the message is signally clear. Gotta get back to work.
The extraordinary impact of Ryan’s message really springs from the fact that it’s an idea whose time has come. Either that or the salesmen in political fantasy, though as good as ever, have finally sold their customers one thing too many, sent them running out into the street one last time under the spell of one of those late night shopping show pitches, intent on ordering the tenth combination potato peeler and bathroom scale only to find all their neighbors sleepwalking toward the center of the road looking open mouthed at the dawn coming up from of the dark edge of the city.