Here’s an important point from Matt Yglesias that I think most people here would agree with. He riffs off a line from Paul Ryan’s convention speech – “None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers — a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” This Hungary circa 1956 vision of America just bears no resemblance to the truth. And that’s because of Matt’s real point, that the differences between the parties are actually much smaller than that.
…post-1970 American politics basically always gives you the same choice. In Column A the market liberalism of the Republican Party and in Column B the social liberalism of the Democratic Party [...]
In essence Ryan wants to run against Communism. And what better thing for a young man with a taste for Ayn Rand novels to aspire to than to some day be able to deliver the basic case for market capitalism before a live national television audience? But as Ryan somewhat awkwardly reminded us with talk of his iPod playlist, he’s far too young to make a career as a cold warrior. So rather than calming down, he’s arbitrarily decided to imbue the debate between spending at 18 percent of GDP and spending at 22 percent of GDP with the moral weight of the Berlin Wall.
The issues just won’t bear that weight. The system that prevailed in the Cold War isn’t pure type libertarianism out of Atlas Shrugged. It’s regulated welfare state capitalism. When the U.S. auto industry is on the verge of collapse, House members who have GM plants in their district vote for the bailout to try to save the company. When the President of the United States implements the bailout in a way that doesn’t happen to lead to the reopening of some specific plants, the House members whose districts lose out get upset. When the elderly overwhelmingly favor one political party over its stances on social issues, that party tends to stand up especially tall for the aspects of the social insurance state that benefit that cohort of people. Earlier in the evening we were introduced to Steve Cohen, a small businessman from Ohio, who thundered on behalf of free markets and against Obama’s overweening regulation before calling for stronger patent protections. Republicans favor large systematic bailouts for farmers afflicted by bad weather.
I would actually argue that Yglesias is exaggerating the differences here, at least as they’ve played out on the big issues. Paul Ryan and his confreres voted for the bailout, which Barack Obama whipped to get his side to support. When Obama put together a $787 billion stimulus, with substantial amounts focused on tax cuts, Paul Ryan voted for an alternative, a $715 billion stimulus (basically the same in size except for the inclusion of the alternative minimum tax patch, which is not stimulative) that was entirely focused on tax cuts. Obama’s goal for Medicare spending and Paul Ryan’s goal for Medicare spending is exactly the same, GDP +0.5%.
I don’t necessarily take this to Gush-Bore proportions, but it’s a simple fact that when it matters, on the big issues, politics in America is about trying your best to distinguish differences between you and your opponent that essentially don’t exist. They exist on some issues, of course. But consider the words you didn’t hear yesterday. Words like “the banks.” You won’t hear it much next week either. Paul Ryan had a correct statement yesterday when he said that Obama came in with a housing crisis, and then did nothing to fix it. But the housing plank of the GOP platform has basically nothing to offer, either.
If the GOP wasn’t so radically anti-tax, there would be a general consensus on fiscal policy right now, with cuts to the social insurance state, some modest tax increases on the wealthy, and severe reductions in spending in most areas except for the military. Obviously the national security state has a high degree of continuity. Social issues actually have a larger cleaving than normal at the moment, which is why politics so often plays out on cultural and racial lines.
On economics there is, in theory, a great debate to be had, even if it’s not on the level of communism versus libertarianism, as Ryan wants to pretend. We’re just not going to have that great debate. We’re having a debate between two sides of a ledger, one at 60% of a continuum and the other at 100%. There’s a substantial percentage of that playing field left out of the discussion.
That’s politics in America circa 2012. You can be angry about it, and you can work to push who you think will listen into generating an actual debate. But that’s the baseline.