What Would Kemp Do? The Ryan-Brooks Debate

How big should government be? Two of the most thoughtful conservatives, Representative Paul Ryan and New York Times columnist David Brooks, came to AEI today to debate it. So how did this fight between two men I respect immensely appear on this judge’s scorecard?

Neither pugilist scored a knockout. Both agreed that government should be energetic and provide a safety net for Americans in need. Both agreed that the looming debt crisis was so serious it ought to require immediate and significant restructuring of core welfare state programs. Paul noted that he was no libertarian, citing Friedrich Hayek as supporting the need for a safety net and noting his own Roadmap for America’s Future maintains Social Security, Medicare, and other core safety net programs. Brooks in turn explicitly endorsed the Ryan-Rivlin Medicare and Medicaid reform plan that replaces the current, open-ended programs with state block grants (Medicaid) and a defined-contribution program that would give older Americans vouchers to purchase private-sector insurance (Medicare).

The debate, then, was really about a subsidiary, but crucial, question. What type of narrative and rhetoric ought conservatives to embrace in addressing our current crisis? On this point, I think each man is partly right and partly wrong.

Paul argues that America faces a stark choice between free enterprise and European social democracy. David argues it does not, that the difference between whether government should be 19 or 25 percent of GDP, which is the practical choice before Americans now, does not rise to epic, regime-defining proportions. David also argued that this type of stark rhetoric unnecessarily divides Americans into two camps—when they really have much more in common—making future compromise more difficult.

I think Paul is more on the right path here. David argued that conservatives should embrace the legacy of Lincoln, who used government power to help advance social mobility in the shape of government support for roads, the Morrill Act establishing land grant colleges, and so on. But Lincoln as a politician embraced much more of Paul’s approach rhetorically than David’s.

Lincoln rose to national prominence on the heels of his “House Divided” speech. It scandalized the moderate, educated opinion of his day. Surely America was not really a “house divided against itself” with respect to slavery, fated to become “all one thing or all another”! The proximate causes of Lincoln’s declaration, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision, did not mean that the free states of the north were in any danger of becoming slave states, as Lincoln boldly stated. The differences between North and South could be compromised, they argued, as had been done before in 1820 and 1850.

Lincoln in his speech, though, argued that Americans should not look solely at the specific questions before Americans in 1858, but rather at “whither we are tending.” He painstakingly showed that the direction of the course taken since the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the principle that underlay it, that there was no inherent natural right to freedom for a black man that either popular opinion (Kansas-Nebraska Act) or courts of law (Dred Scott) were obligated to observe, ineluctably led to the conclusion that no state could prevent slavery in its territory. Indeed, Lincoln went farther than that: he argued that “we find it impossible not to believe” that the current and past presidents of the United States, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, and Stephen Douglas, his senatorial opponent and the putative next president, were not consciously engaged in this effort and “all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first lick was struck.”

David said, as he has in many of his columns, that he embraces the Hamiltonian and Whig belief in an active federal government. But such policies were largely rejected by Americans for 60 years following the election of 1800. They became part of the nation’s governing philosophy only as a result of Lincoln’s emotional, stark, neo-populist rhetoric that led to rise of the Republican Party. Indeed, no enduring American political coalition has ever been built that does not have its rhetorical roots in the “the future of our nation is at risk” sort of rhetoric Paul employs.

Paul could do a better job of walking his audience through the points and logic of his position, as Lincoln did, to show why the Obama administration’s policies lead ineluctably to European social democracy. I’ve believed for quite some time that the left wing of the Democratic Party intends this, but for those who need more evidence a thorough, Lincolnian critique would be very helpful.

A deeper, more implied part of David’s critique, however, does ring true to me. David said at the end that many college-educated people, like those in the AEI audience, embrace risk, but many less-educated people do not. He said conservatives need to be conscious of this if we want to reform Social Security, Medicare, and other core entitlements. As I’ve written elsewhere (here and here), I believe David is spot-on about this and Paul’s rhetoric needs to recognize more of this reality if he is to succeed.

The Republican wave was fueled in large part by the white working class. They voted for Republican House candidates by a record 29-point margin, larger than in any previous House election and in any previous presidential election except perhaps those of 1972 and 1984. This crucial bloc of voters wants growth and security, and they are increasingly frustrated that one party seems to offer security and the other offers growth but neither offers both.

Paul’s intellectual and political mentor, Jack Kemp, used to argue that the GOP needed to abandon its “green eyeshade” approach to economics and domestic policy that seemingly put money before people. He came to this conclusion after years of representing a white, working-class district in Buffalo, and in his subsequent career he always made certain to emphasize his genuine love for the poor and working class while simultaneously embracing an economic approach focused every bit on growth and incentives as is Paul’s. Ronald Reagan also always made clear that he respected FDR’s New Deal (he never tired of saying he voted four times for FDR) and remade American politics by offering growth and stability. Dealing with the debt can bring out the green eyeshade mentality in all of us; conservative Republicans like Paul need to be extra careful in addressing the issue because many Americans still inherently fear that we still haven’t learned Kemp’s and Reagan’s lessons.

All in all, I came away thinking both fighters acquitted themselves well. I look forward to the rematch—these questions are not going away any time soon.

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