The likely Secretary of Treasury in the next Obama Administration praising the wicked, very bad, no good and completely howwwible Mr. Paul Ryan. ’nuff said. The fix is in and it’s after your pension and health care.
There will be (and has been) much ink spilt over Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan and I don’t intend to spend too much time replicating what other people are saying, except to point readers to Charlie Pierce at Esquire, who’s got the guy pegged as only a Boston sportswriter can peg a Massachusetts pol, or perhaps Paul Krugman, who loses all academic objectivity when discussing the manifest fraud that is the Ryan budget. I can’t top “Zombie-eyed Granny Starver” (Pierce) or “the Flim-Flam Man” (Krugman), so I’ll just point out the uncomfortable truth—that Paul Ryan is perhaps the most extreme choice for a major party ticket in over a century and he represents the zeitgeist of our political elites. In fact, the Ryan choice is so extreme that it’s producing head-scratching in some quarters. It almost certainly cost the Romney campaign Florida and makes so little electoral sense (Romney will not win Wisconsin come what may, but he’s getting no benefit of his VP pick in Ohio and doing great harm in older states like Florida and Pennsylvania) that some people are even assuming this is some sort of “oakie-doke”— that Barack Obama suckered Romney into choosing his favorite Republican piñata.
Such thoughts, however, downplay the extremism of our times. Ryan may be extreme to the population, which polls show love their entitlements, but he is much more a consensus political figure among media, financial and political elites; his program is, after all, already the governing philosophy of David Cameron in the UK, Mariano Rajoy of Spain, Angela Merkel of Germany and frankly just about every political elite outside of Latin America one can shake a stick at (even alleged “socialists” like France’s Hollande show a canine devotion to dismantling the twentieth century welfare state—the better to replace it with the twenty-first century poverty state of high unemployment, rising inequality, and starved social services). While these fellows are called many things—”deficit Hawks” (a misnomer since they all pump up the deficit by spurring unemployment), “austerians,” and, my own favorite, the neo-Hooverians, if truth be told Naomi Klein had these guys pegged years ago and we should refer to them as the Shock Doctrinaires. Ryan is not the extremist here—he is the standard bearer.
The first and most obvious point to make about the Ryan choice was that it was certainly a choice, but not necessarily Romney’s—it’s hard to see him choosing this uber-conservative under anything but duress from the Tea Party wing of the GOP. I’m quite sure that our brilliant political journalists, folks who just swoon over Ryan as some sort of “Very Serious Person” since his budget afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable (which is their journalistic credo), will do their best to obscure this fact, but Ryan is not a Romney-type politician the way, say Rob Portman of Ohio or Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota are. Rather, Ryan has long been known as the Koch Brothers’ favorite congressman and the darling of the National Review and Wall Street Journal, which were pushing hard for his inclusion on the ticket. As Romney has already groveled before at least one billionaire, the odious Sheldon Adelson, for promises of large campaign donations (more or less “off shoring” his Middle East policy to Bibi Netanyahu at Adelson’s behest), it is not beyond the realm of possibility that folks like the Koch Brothers have more or less put the order in for their pet Ayn Rand fanatic, Paul Ryan (and sure enough, the swag has been rolling in from the plutocrat types since the announcement).
But the second point, made by the likes of Ezra Klein, is that even a robber-baron like Mitt Romney is too “moderate” for his political party. “Shoring up the base” going into the convention means that this election is similar to the 1980 one, alright, only this time Romney is Carter. The effects of various Supreme Court rulings have turned the parties into nothing more than the political subcontractors for various oligarchic influences—Romney tacked manfully to the most extreme positions we’ve seen in political life since at least Goldwater, and yet his sincerity was doubted. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, with its corporate sponsors pulling the strings, wanted guarantees. For them Ryan is no extremist but the only man in Washington brave enough to take on entrenched interests; Romney might have been able to play the part of conservative ideologue but not necessarily live it. There is no doubt about Ryan on that score.
The final reason for Ryan is that the Beltway commentariat, the folks Digby calls the Village, has what Krugman has long referred to as “flim-flam fever”—Paul Ryan gives these folks starbursts like onto those that Palin gave to right-wing bloggers. See Ryan is a Very Serious Person. Why? Because he wants people to suffer. To be Very Serious among the political elite is to be able to smile as you kill, and Ryan is certainly that man. Harsh? No—in the tribal initiation rituals of the Beltway only advocates of bombing people (only “bad guys,” of course—and large piles of “collateral damage” need not be noticed) and starving people (children should be targeted too, like the brave slashers of the food stamp program) are “serious.” This speaks to the terrible desert among said Villagers that occupies the space most people reserve for their souls. This is not a matter of ideology—the people who advocate the most patently ridiculous pretenses for the Iraq, be they Bill Kristol on the right or Matthew Yglesias or Ezra Klein on the left, are rewarded and given a megaphone. Ditto for endorsing the insane, Cameron-esque, non-recommendations (since it couldn’t muster a consensus even among the Committee) of the “Deficit Reduction Committee.” We were only saved from pitiless prescriptions of the aptly named “Catfood Commission” due to the intransigence of a bunch of four-year olds (also known as the ”Tea Party Caucus,” who didn’t get everything they wanted, only 90% of what they wanted, so they took their ball and went home). Those who have pointed out the obvious chicanery and inhumanity in the War and Poverty program have been branded ”shrill” (just ask Krugman or Dean Baker how that works). By the way, the fact that the shrill have been right about everything and the Very Serious wrong, is only an only an indictment of the former. To the throng of columnists, commentators and cable news analysts the Very Serious “should” be right and therefore we’ll act as if they are right. One can speculate as to why this should be—perhaps the inherent sadism of this class of moral eunuchs or the dictates of their corporate masters—but it is so. For this bunch of happy sociopaths, Ryan is the perfect embodiment of their ideals; a ”deficit cutter” whose budget balloons the deficit; a crusader against the welfare state who votes for the largest corporate welfare handouts in history; a pseudo-Christian whose own warped “Randism” gets him an angry scolding from a bunch of nuns. In other words, a complete phony. How can they not love him?
So, the Romney pick secures the endorsement of all the major constituencies that matter in America’s warped little ersatz democracy—the big money boys, the faux populist Tea Party crowd, and the vapid, elite chatterers. A campaign that was in danger of focusing on the tiresome little people’s issues such as mass unemployment is now a bold contrast of those who propose endless war, the gutting of civil liberties, painful budget cuts, and increased income inequality versus, you know, the GOP.
No, you read that last line correctly. For Mr. Ryan listens to the dulcet strains of the same muse that beguiles Democrats as well—austerity. The Romney campaign can deflect every charge hurled by the Democrats against their “social Darwinist” Ryan budget and rightly argue that Obama got there first. Does Ryan seek to drain Medicare of so much money that seniors will be forced into penury to buy insurance? Almost certainly, but Romney can point to the hundreds of billions Obama’s ACA has diverted from Medicare (“bending the arc” of this program’s ballooning costs was the prime mission of the entire health care reform, along with providing a stable consumer base for predatory insurance companies—which is why Peter Orszag at the Budget Office was such a major architect of its silly Rube Goldberg design). The ads have already gone up hitting Obama for destroying Medicare and crediting Ryan with trying to save it. These cuts to Medicare were the single most persuasive argument of the GOP in rallying its base of older, white voters to sink Obama’s agenda in the worst congressional thumping since the 1938 election—and this demographic will be out in force again in 2012. Ryan’s plan really is an effort to end Medicare and force millions of elderly Americans onto the private insurance market with all its horrors, but Obama’s ACA has sufficiently muddied the waters on such issues that Romney can plausibly tar Obama with wanting to take away not just your health care but your health (remember “death panels”?).
We now know that Obama has little affection for the Great Society programs of the 1960s and sees them as expendable. He certainly was willing to sacrifice his Medicaid expansion and designed a system of state-sponsored insurance exchanges which essentially ceded control of health insurance provision to the states (including the gruesome Texas), so really what intellectually credible charge can he make against Ryan’s preference for “block-granting” Medicaid funds to the states. Yes, of course the states will cut the rolls and conduct more stringent means testing, but the idea that such things are charity and should come with a stigma attached (the only real Randian aspect of Ryan’s economic policy—no one’s “going Galt” under Obama’s tax rates), is not inconsistent with Mr. Obama’s persistent hints he wants to means-test Medicare. Moreover, Mr. Obama’s HHS has already granted Medicaid waivers to states such as Wisconsin and Florida (and his own Illinois) which will result in a major reduction in eligibility, as will the block grants. Now, remember, that the Administration has full discretion over granting these waivers and the result has been the purging of hundreds of thousands of recipients. While we assume Red states will cut even more recipients under block grants, such cuts are proceeding apace under Obama. The much ballyhooed “Medicaid expansion” under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which has given him plausible political cover to grant these waivers, looks increasingly like a will-o-wisp; the Supreme Court decision on the act’s constitutionality has given GOP governors such as Rick Scott of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas an opt out, one which they are quite willing to take for ideological reasons. In other words, as on Medicare, so with Medicaid, the Obama Administration has been Ryan-lite, not “block-grants” but very generous “waivers.” Well, so much for Obama’s fealty to the Great Society, the social welfare commitments that have defined what it means to be a “liberal” for over a generation.
The simple fact of the matter is that Obama is not so crazy about the New Deal either. In his “negotiation” with the House Republicans over the debt ceiling limit last summer (in truth a kabuki negotiation since they GOP wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer), Obama proposed substantial cuts to entitlements and proposed massive entitlement “reforms” (Beltway speak for taking something away). Obama’s proposals called for over $450 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, while changing the cost of living calculation to social security and increasing the already harsh age limits for eligibility to the program. No, this is not “privatizing” social security (i.e., forced savings of the population delivered to a painfully corrupt and predatory financial system), nor does it “end Medicare and Medicaid” as we know it. Nevertheless, such “reforms” would substantially weaken these programs and turn them from entitlements—rights one has from contributing to the common pool of social insurance—to charity (and thus more politically convenient to underfund). They would be by far the greatest weakening of these programs since the Reagan era (Ronnie is, after all, Obama’s hero). We already know that Obama has been the only President to forcefully shrink government in a recessionary cycle (public employment is at its lowest level since 1968), making him an anti-Keynesian of the first order. But his already agreed-to cuts in domestic spending, as well as support for tax increases, the so-called “fiscal cliff” has marked him as an “austerian” well in the mold of Cameron or Rajoy. Matt Stoller makes a compelling argument that Obama’s plan (that dare not speak its name) for the second term is to gut entitlements. Seeing as he already agreed to that proposition last year and has waffled on the even more extreme proposals of his “Catfood Commission” (Paul Ryan is not the only Granny Starver out there), it’s hard to see Mr. Obama as a liberal savior. Indeed, no matter who wins, the fix is already in to gut entitlements. Trial balloons are already flying that a second term Obama Administration would rely on Erskine Bowles for Treasury Secretary, co-chair of the Catfood Commission and man with a long history of trying to “privatize” social security. That would pretty much be the signal that Obama has moved from protecting the banks from public anger (Timmy Geithner’s role) to catering to their most predatory appetites (Erskine Bowles). Indeed, the Vichy Democrats of the Third Way are already mainstreaming the idea that entitlement “reforms” are the “liberal” thing to do, since the budget savings can then be devoted to “investments” in education, infrastructure and the space program (as if! any balanced budgets will simply be an excuse to cut taxes on the rich again which will cause a ballooning deficit which will cause further cuts to social spending; rinse, spin, repeat). It goes without saying that Third Way’s views are narrowly technocratic and would shred the social welfare state, which brings into question whether there is any intellectual coherence to the term “liberal” at all. Still, who among us can confidently aver that Obama would not follow the advice of such “progressives” once freed from the chore of standing for election? Not me.
Liberals are high-fiving amongst themselves since they see Ryan as such an extremist that their guy is now a shoe-in. That is hubris. Ryan is in the mainstream of Western governance these days and the GOP is confident that a barrage of negative advertising (hell, it worked in the primaries) and various methods of voter suppression will win them the election. Ryan might be a heartbeat away from the presidency more quickly than liberals imagine. Yes, there is something Putinian about this strategy but who thinks the GOP is above Putinism? Moreover, the media love a horse race and establishment reporters such as Ryan Lizza are already presenting Ryan’s choice as some sort of high-minded battle of ideas,
But the good thing about the Ryan pick is that the Presidential campaign will instantly turn into a very clear choice between two distinct ideologies that genuinely reflect the core beliefs of the two parties.
Bollocks. The negativity and nasty personal attacks of this campaign is precisely because the elite factions represented by the parties are in general ideological agreement. Ryan might be Pinochet without the tanks, but Obama ain’t exactly Allende—quite the opposite in fact. In general, Obama and Romney have the same political instincts—which is why Obama adopted Romney’s health reform and Romney can find no real purchase on trying to attack Obama from the right on national security issues. Romney talks about shredding the Bill of Rights, Obama’s been there, done that. Most importantly, if Romney has gone for the full-Ayn Rand attack on the “moochers and parasites” (you know, citizens) that get in the way of endless corporate welfare and militarism, Obama has already proven himself to be Ayn Rand-lite in this regard. Neither candidate can really express with full clarity their program, since the voters will reject it, so we are faced with smoke and mirrors (what, exactly, are the details of Mr. Romney’s tax reforms) or obstruction (oh, all the wonderful things Mr. Obama would’ve done with a House majority and filibuster-proof Senate! Oh, wait . . .). Mr. Sarkozy was a neo-Hooverian. Mr. Hollande is a neo-Hooverian. Right/left labels mattered not at all, except on the velocity of the proposed “shock,” which Sarkozy was stupid enough to spell out for the voters. The American election is running in the same channel, but neither candidate is as indiscreet as Mr. Sarkozy to detail whose ox he plans to gore. Thus the silly talk of loopholes and enhanced revenues—as if that’s where the money is.
Whatever the electoral results, Stoller is probably right that America will face an austerity-imposed recession without much of a social safety net, no matter becomes President. That the American poverty rate is back at pre-Great Society levels should be a cringing shame to all factions of the political elite, but given the political consensus for mass suffering (oh, excuse me “shared sacrifice”), we should soon expect Victorian levels of grinding poverty. Why not? After all, Greece and Spain have reached the Great Depression in this time warp. I don’t expect the population, especially seniors who will be plunged into penury by these changes, will accept this trajectory with indifference, so look for OWS-style resistance in the very near future. Unfortunately, I see no Arab springs coming to either Europe or the United States. After all, shooting down civilians is bad, except for enforcing economic “reforms” (see Chile and the Russian Federation/White House). As Bukharin said of Stalin’s proposal for another mass impoverishment (collectivization), “he will be compelled to drown the rebellions in blood.” I wish I could believe such Stalinesque tactics were alien to Western countries such as the US, but watching the ferocity of “liberal” mayors against OWS protesters and the indifference in which the EU views one of its members becoming clearly fascistic (Hungary), I have my doubts. I have my doubts.
Bottom line? Mr. Ryan is both so extreme and so clearly a symbol of his age that anyone with a scrap of humanity should resist Mr. Romney on the basis of this choice alone. But to embrace Mr. Obama and Obamism is simply to embrace a “kinder and gentler” Ryanism, the chronic manifestation rather than the acute form of the same malady. I can understand progressive and liberal folks voting for Obama simply because Ryan is so horrible, but they should not do so with any great enthusiasm or without preparing for the inevitable post-election battles. Ryan is not the face of our future, but our present—and Mr. Obama shares the same zombie stare when contemplating Granny’s pension. Mr. Obama, however, has a nicer smile.