I wrote the other day that with his speech calling for a more conciliatory tone in American politics, a tone in which “we question each other’s ideas — vigorously — but we don’t question each other’s motives,” House Speaker Paul Ryan was trying to lay a foundation upon which to rebuild the Republican Party.
The speech was courageous, and those who saw it as a self-serving effort by Ryan to position himself as the GOP presidential nominee should its convention deadlock are badly misreading the mood of that party. The Republican base is not by any means prepared to rally behind Ryan’s message at the moment, and he knows it as well or better than anyone.
But as Ryan himself would stress, changing the tone will only be half the battle. In a politics of ideas, the quality of ideas matter. And the fact of the matter is that the ideas that Ryan and other establishment Republicans continue to champion are badly out of date and irrelevant to modern economic challenges. They come across as artifacts of another time, a time in which disco rocked the air waves and lava lamps and leisure suits were considered cool.
Let’s take a moment to assess where we stand today, both politically and macro-economically:
Among other things, this election cycle has forced a grudging acknowledgement in elements of both parties that the benefits of global trade have been unfairly concentrated among a relative few, in the form of huge corporate profits, a soaring stock market and increasing accumulation of wealth and income at the top. Conversely, the significant burdens of free trade — lower earning power, good-paying jobs going overseas, reduced benefits, increased economic insecurity — have been borne by a very different group of people. There’s a glaring imbalance, and it has nothing to do with how hard people work.
The unlikely successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have made it clear that if the nation’s political and economic elite hopes to sustain long-term public support for a global economy — and the alternative to such a system is grim for everybody — they’re going to have to accept steps in which the social compact is renegotiated and the benefits and burdens of globalization are shared more equitably. The economic trends of the past 35 years that have produced this frustration show no signs of reversing on their own and instead appear ready to accelerate, and that situation is simply no longer sustainable. One way or the other, the political system will be forced to address that fact.
So what are the economic ideas championed by Ryan and his colleagues to confront such modern-day challenges? Prior to his election as speaker, Ryan served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, where he would produce annual documents laying out his vision of how government ought to respond. Those budgets never went anywhere, but Ryan often pointed to them as a guide to what the GOP should do if given the power. His hand-picked successor as Budget Committee chair, U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, has followed in that tradition. Those documents are essentially a blueprint of the ideas and values that Ryan believes will lead to a rejuvenation of his party and his country.
Having studied those earlier budget reports, and having read the proposed 2017 budget produced by Price, I think they are fooling themselves.
In a world of disappearing pensions, inadequate 401-ks and stagnant earning power, Ryan, Price and their colleagues advocate a future in which Medicare is privatized, Medicaid is gutted, student loans are pushed toward elimination, Social Security benefits are targeted as too lush and food stamps are condemned as a crutch for the weak-willed. At a time when people are seeking help, the Ryan message is that they have been given too much help already.
When that message is paired with unspecified corporate and upper-income tax breaks, as it has been in most of the Ryan budget documents, it becomes even more unpalatable. Nothing in these documents recognizes that significant, long-term macro-economic changes driven by globalization and technology are imposing significant hardships on American communities. Instead, every problem is treated as if it is caused by government and can cured by less government, and by giving even more free rein to the very forces of destabilization that created these challenges in the first place.
I don’t believe that you can rebuild a majority political party on that message, not in this environment. Sure, it’s a message popular with the conservative intellectuals hired at the corporate-sponsored Washington “think tanks;” yes, its “more of the same, please” approach appeals to the well-heeled donors who in the past have dictated the party’s message. But its appeal to those turning out for Trump rallies has been vastly overestimated, and the party is paying the price for that mistake.
Changing that message is going to be difficult and even traumatic. At the moment, for example, the Price-Ryan budget proposal for 2017 is bogged down in the House, unable to attract enough Republican votes to be adopted. Why? Because a significant portion of the GOP House caucus believes that it does not go far enough, fast enough in cutting spending on safety-net programs. Programs that help working people, that help alleviate the burdens imposed in a globalizing economy that has decimated their earning power and savings, aren’t being slashed deeply enough to get their support.
I don’t pretend to know how to change that mindset, or what could possibly replace it.