Paul Ryan's Phony Appeal to Unity

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He says Obama is dividing Americans. In fact, the U.S. is inescapably divided between competing visions for the future.
 

Rep. Paul Ryan, criticizing the record and rhetoric of President Obama, has this to say: "He is going to try to divide us in order to distract us. You know, I seem to remember him saying that he was going to be a uniter, not a divider. Frankly, I think this is one of the worst of his broken promises."

As Newt Gingrich might say, what a bunch of pious baloney.

Rep. Ryan's only utility in American politics is as follows: by putting forth a budget that cuts the deficit, significantly curtails services, and shifts a lot of burdensome spending to state governments, he has helped to present voters with a stark alternative to the Democratic vision for the future. For his part, President Obama would prefer to address the deficit less aggressively, to close part of the alarmingly large gap between revenue and expenditures by increasing the tax burden, and to keep expanding federal power. This isn't to say that both men aren't guilty of accounting tricks, misleading rhetoric, and other dishonesty typical of politicians (nor is it to say they are equally guilty of those things). But putting all else aside, they have dramatically different ideas about how America should solve its problems. If anything, a more honest accounting of their preferred futures would divide Americans even more.

Is everything in Obama's recent speech scrupulously fair to his conservative antagonists? No, of course not. But on the whole, Rep. Ryan and President Obama each earnestly think that their way is better, and the contrast in their approaches isn't going to be obscured by a bit of fudging. Americans just are divided between people who want to raise taxes on the rich and those who don't, between supporters and opponents of Obamacare, between fans of FDR and folks who think his domestic agenda was a disastrous turning point in America, between people who want to privatize Social Security and those who don't, and along many other lines too. 

Highlighting these differences is divisive, legitimate, and necessary. If anything, we'd benefit if both sides were more frank in acknowledging the real downsides of their respective approaches. 

What sort of divisiveness is illegitimate?

On the right, it's perhaps best embodied by Newt Gingrich, who in the last year has insisted that President Obama is to blame for the fact that many conservatives think he is a radical Muslim; that he is best understood as a Kenyan anti-colonialist; that his remarks about Trayvon Martin were illegitimate; while on the left, the most bothersome recent tick has been the preemptive insistence that if conservative Supreme Court justices strike down the individual mandate in President Obama's health care bill, it'll be an expression of pure partisan allegiance rather than an earnest expression of discomfort with Commerce Clause jurisprudence as it's evolved over the decades since New Deal era case law broadened and transformed it.

Assessing President Obama's term as a whole, I must say that while libertarians left, right and center are justified in carping about all sorts of explicit betrayals, conservatives don't have much to complain about. They're free to disagree with and oppose Obama's domestic agenda, of course, but he's essentially done what he promised to do during the campaign, and has made several attempts to attract bipartisan support while doing so. Had the GOP adopted a different strategy, they could've gotten some meaningful concessions on the health care bill and cut a deal to reduce the deficit with spending cuts at least several times bigger than any tax increases.

The GOP instead adopted a strategy of outright opposition, and in the areas where Obama has indefensibly broken promises they've kept quiet for the most part, because it's been in line with the Bush-Cheney approach to foreign policy. The right is meanwhile pretending that Obama is intentionally presiding over a significant diminution of American power while he apologizes the world over. This doesn't mean Obama's approach is good for America. Personally, I don't think he deserves to win reelection, but neither do the Republicans deserve to win the White House.

All I ask while the rest of this no-win election plays out is that guys like Rep. Ryan stop insulting everyone's intelligence by pretending that the conservative movement and the GOP are earnestly trying to unify the people of America while President Obama is cynically trying to tear us apart.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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