The Naive Opposition

By Ross Douthat

Ezra Klein, on Paul Ryan's alternative budget:

It's not what you do when you're responsible for running the government. It's what you propose when you're responsible for running the messaging.

I understand what he's getting at, but this phrasing makes it sound like the House Republicans' budget is an exercise in cynicism and partisan political calculation - which is exactly the wrong way to look at what's going on with the House GOP. Sure, there may be some cynicism involved in how the Ryan proposal makes its numbers add up. But the overall outline - an across-the-board tax cut and a flatter tax code, substantial means-testing for Social Security and Medicare, and a five-year discretionary spending freeze - strikes me as the opposite of cynical. Rather, there's a kind of deep innocence about it: The purity of its small-government vision is more detached from the grubby realities of American politics than any similar document I can remember. It's as if the Democratic Party, in the aftermath of it's 2002 and 2004 defeats, had proposed an alternative to George W. Bush's wartime budgets that slashed defense spending dramatically, raised income taxes across the board, and invested all of the resulting revenue in a revivified AFDC, a massive cash grant to the UN, and a big new federal jobs program for "green-collar" workers, community organizers, and Planned Parenthood clinicians.

Now maybe the Democrats should have done just that. Certainly there are left-liberal voices who would have welcomed an explicitly social-democratic alternative to Bushism, as a means of widening the bounds of political discourse, and opening new vistas on the left. Sometimes naivete in the short run is wisdom in the long run. And maybe by providing such a rigorously small-government alternative to Obamanomics, the Congressional GOP will succeed in pushing the conversation rightward, and moving important but hard-to-sell ideas like means-testing entitlements into the mainstream where they belong.

But sometimes naivete is just naivete. Sometimes, putting your least-popular ideas together in one agenda just makes it easier for your opponents to run circles around you. And right now, I think the country could use a right-of-center party that paid a little more attention to its messaging, and a little less attention to its blueprints for the ideal small-government society.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2009/04/the-naive-opposition/56072/