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Ryan's Hope and Change

Theodore Roosevelt, when asked what a Progressive was, once responded: “A Progressive is a conservative who resolutely sets his face towards the future.” Putting aside for a moment the issue of how conservatives moved away from the norm of limited government and began to stretch the meaning of the Constitution, let us ponder the issue of political labels and what they have come to mean.

Today’s would-be liberal Democrats are very anxious to have themselves defined as not only people who care, but as those who embody in their very being the notion of progress, based on an ever-expanding welfare state. In the '40s and '50s, they used the term “liberal” to describe themselves, even though they had hijacked the very meaning of liberal, which had arisen from the doctrine of classical liberalism associated with the defenders of laissez-faire ideology, as well as from the concept of the liberal culture of the West, which definitely did not have anything to do with an ever-growing state power.

Once our country passed through the volatile 1960s, with the emergence of both the counterculture and the New Left, most Americans came to identify liberals as those who identified with and supported all the excesses of both, including the use of violence, the disdain for authority and order, the calls for revolution, and the abandonment of moral values to hold the social order together. Quickly discovering that the term “liberal” and the idea of liberalism began to have a negative content, those who used to proudly assert that pedigree decided they had to come up with something else. That turned out to be the old term “progressive,” adopted from the old Progressive movement of the early 20th century.

Ironically, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, those “liberals” who were vigorously opposed to the totalitarianism of the Left as well as the far Right called themselves “anti-Communist liberals” who favored the Vital Center, to use Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s phrase. They sought to distinguish themselves from their old allies during the New Deal era who worked with the Communists and fellow-travelers, and who still wanted to keep that alliance alive when most Americans came to understand that there really was a Soviet threat. The so-called  liberals, who still favored a Popular Front with the Communists, then began to call themselves “progressives.”

Of course, they were not progressive, in any sense of the word, just as today’s left-liberals who now also call themselves progressives are not. What they really are -- and I strongly believe we should begin to regularly call them this -- are reactionaries. I use that term because when they argue against any movement to curb entitlements, demand an answer to fiscal crisis by “taxing the rich” and implementing higher and higher taxes, and argue on behalf of more and more bailouts, as does Paul Krugman, or new social programs like national health insurance and universal, free, government-funded health care, they are looking backwards for “solutions” that would make things worse for everyone, and that would both quickly fail and leave the United States a society on the way to permanent collapse.

Writing in Time, Fareed Zakaria points out that Barack Obama’s response to the agenda set forth by Rep. Paul Ryan finds the president doing the opposite of acting like a grownup, and trying on his own to let the nation know how he intends to deal with what is a very real coming major economic crisis. Zakaria writes that the entire “liberal establishment is in full fury over Ryan’s plan,” instead of realizing that although they might argue the plan has flaws and needs fixing, they are seeking to yell bloody murder about how it will harm the elderly, the middle class, and the poor.

As Brad Schaffer writes at Frum Forum, Chris Matthews told his Hardball audience that  Ryan’s bill “would kill half the people who watch this show.” Schaffer points out that in fact, those really hurt by Medicare and the proposals to extend it and enlarge it are the young, who will be paying through the nose. Matthews went on to say that “the federal government promised that back in the 1960s, that they would take care of people who have worked their whole life for their medical costs.” On this, Schaffer comments: “True enough. But that was nearly fifty years ago. It was a promise based upon faulty actuarials and bogus assumptions and now, after decades of kicking the can down the road, the bill has finally come due.”

Except that most self-proclaimed liberals don’t get it, with the exception of Jacob Weisberg, whose article I cited in an earlier blog post, and Zakaria. Zakaria even faults Ryan for not going far enough, for refusing to touch Social Security reform, and for not specifying what actual programs he would cut. He argues that the Ryan play as he sees it is “actually quite weak at outlining reductions in government spending.”

Zakaria, of course, is no Tea Party conservative. He argues that CBO estimates show that the Ryan plan would not actually lower health care prices for the poor or elderly, and he thinks that the Ryan voucher plan would not work. But Zakaria, unlike the liberal establishment, is not a reactionary. He goes on to write that “[i]n health care, a huge part of the expense relates to a small percentage of sick patients and to the last year of life (and those two categories overlap). Eighty-five percent of Medicare costs are generated by just 25% of patients. Even in the most conservative health care plan, the health savings account, people buy catastrophic insurance. Well, that sick 25% of the patient population would have catastrophic insurance, which would still explode the Medicare budget.”

Zakaria fully understands that people have to take Ryan and his proposals seriously, because, as he writes, “The Government Accountability Office concludes that America faces a “‘fiscal gap’ of $99.4 trillion over the next 75 years, which would mean we would have to increase taxes by 50% or reduce spending by 35% simply to stop accumulating more debt. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will together make up 50% of the federal budget by 2021.” In anyone’s eyes, these shocking figures reveal a very serious looming fiscal crisis.

Zakaria does not understand why “liberals” don’t get this. He argues that they should understand that if nothing is done, there will not be any funds whatsoever left for the kind of government programs they love -- those for developing infrastructure and doing something about economic inequality, poverty, education and the like. He argues: “Liberals fear an attack on the welfare state, so they have become unthinking defenders of every aspect of that state. Consider Social Security. The left doesn't seem to understand that it has won the war. Conservatives long tried to turn Social Security into a set of individual retirement accounts. That failed, and now they propose means testing and other changes that are highly progressive. This is a deal worth making.”

Possibly. The only problem is that the reactionaries -- those Zakaria still calls liberals -- cannot accept any such deal, because they have one simple solution they scream over and over: “Tax the rich,” take their money and redistribute it to the poor, and so forth. Of course, their concept of rich includes many hard working middle-class Americans, and they do not seem to realize that even if they did tax the highest end rich to the maximum amount possible, it would hardly make a dent in the kind of looming fiscal crisis facing us down the pike.

The reactionaries are those who, and here I use Zakaria’s own words, seek “to turn every item in Ryan’s plan into an attack ad, scare the elderly and ride to victory in 2012,” thereby pushing off entitlement reform to the far future, when it will be far too late.

Writing in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, my favorite commentator on social policy issues, Yuval Levin, calls Ryan’s plan “radical gradualism.” Levin writes: “[Ryan’s plan is] a choice between a vision and a nonvision. Opposed to the House Republicans’ agenda is not a different set of solutions to our deepening fiscal problems proposed by the left, or even a defense of our existing welfare state. What the Democrats offer instead is complaisance that amounts to a knowing acquiescence in a preventable disaster. The Democratic party now has no discernible policy agenda whatsoever. It offers only a reflexive defense of an indefensible status quo.”

Levin is exactly right -- which is why we must continually point out that when these Democrats and radicals make their arguments, they are looking back to failed proposals from the New Deal era, and arguing against any changes that will address today’s problems. Hence, again, they are classic reactionaries.

Ryan does not want to abolish the welfare state in a radical direction, but reform it and save social programs that provide a necessary safety net for those who need it. As Levin points out, it is meant to balance the budget slowly, in over two decades! This is Burkean reform at its best; not radical change. The transformation of Medicare that Ryan proposes is to begin in ten years -- hardly tomorrow.

I have written this before President Obama speaks tomorrow. The president has this one chance to break from the back of his “liberal” colleagues and his leftist base, and seek to meet Ryan’s proposals in a serious fashion. Will he do this, or will he too prove that he is just another one of the reactionary pack of average Democrats? We will soon find out. Will he, like old TR, decide to be the kind of progressive who really cares about the future, and seeks to meet serious conservatives more than half way?