Why Paul Ryan's Budget Matters

Paul Ryan's budget is much more vague than he'll admit, but much better for the budget wars than liberals might suggest

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Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republican budget this week with an ominous yet familiar warning: "America's national debt is over $16 trillion." Having stated the problem, he then offered a solution, one which differed only marginally from what he's offered the past two years. Namely: restrain government healthcare spending on Medicare and Medicaid, reform the individual tax code, close loopholes, lower corporate taxes, and promote natural gas and energy independence. The goal? A balanced budget by 2023 that will ensure "the well-being of all Americans...and reignite the American dream."

The strongest part of Ryan's unveiling is not the specifics, which may not be very strong at all, but the unimpeachable critique of the White House and congressional Democrats for not offering their own blueprint and budget for the future. Some of that is semantics; both the president and congressional Democrats have offered various rough outlines of their long-term budget, and now Senate Democrats offered their counter-proposal. But until late they had operated more in the rough-and-tumble of dysfunctional Washington negotiations rather than with explicit, official and formal (and long) outlines of exactly what will be spent and how. Yes, each year the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, does assess and express views about present spending. That is not the same as an explicit pathway for the future, which Ryan has indeed offered.

Such offerings are vital. You may, as I do, disagree with key elements of what Ryan and the Republicans are proposing. You may, as I do, object to the fixation on the size of the current debt without any consideration of why that debt was incurred and how much it currently costs to service it, given historically low interest rates. But Republicans are offering a set of answers, and Ryan for one is asking for those to be addressed so the process of debating and, yes, compromising can begin. No, the president is not required to offer a detailed budget; the power of the purse lies with Congress, not the White House. But a detailed vision, especially one that contrasts with the Republican one, would be welcome and productive.

Instead, what we get is mutual mistrust and bile. Assuming the worst of those you disagree with is in vogue these days, at least in politics. It's a bipartisan sport. Just as Ryan was claiming to welcome ideas from the president and Democrats, House Speaker John Boehner made the following claim on his website: "The president [is] AWOL and unserious about eliminating the deficit." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shot back that Ryan's budget proposal "is anything but balanced, anything but fair." The fund-raising machines of both parties jumped on these ideas. The Democratic House Majority PAC issued an email blast saying Ryan's budget ideas were recycled (which is true) and that if his plans ever came close to becoming law they would gut middle-class safety nets. At the same time, "The wealthy, Big Oil and companies that ship jobs overseas? They're sittin' pretty."

American politics, let alone any country's politics, have never been characterized by gentility. People of strong disagreements rarely engage in heated and passionate debate that stays on point, let alone debate that begins and ends with the presumption that everyone engaged is committed to the best interests of the collective. In that sense, today's political and economic discourse is no more or no less ad hominen, immature and demagogic than at multiple points in the past.

Still, going from adamant disagreement to disdainful dismissal requires a leap. It requires the belief that those with whom you strongly disagree are not making their own good-faith effort to solve collective challenges, but instead are attempting to "get theirs" at the expense of the rest.

That can take the form of insinuating that Ryan and the Republican Party are engaged in a relentless and purposeful campaign to gut the middle class and reward rich cronies. The Democratic Congressional Committee sent an email blast in response to Ryan saying he had "announced yet another plan to destroy Medicare just so Republicans can give massive tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy." It can take the form of accusing Barack Obama (or other Democrats) of seeking government control and believing in socialism as a goal unto itself. If you search for "Obama" and "socialism" on Google, you'll see thousands of hits from the fringe, yes, but they're also from the Tea Party (which many consider fringe but still has dozens of members in the House caucus) and, of course, Fox News.

It may be that some individuals are indeed as nefarious as imagined. There may be a few people who do indeed crave government control, or wish to enrich the oil industry just 'cause, or want to gut the middle class. But have they all gathered in one political party? Did all people of these inclinations decide to enter politics, thereby driving away countless others who believe in public service? The Tea Party may be extreme in its views about the dangers of debt and the perils of compromise, but is it to a person dedicated to harming the middle class? And if so, why? Because some oil companies paid them?

We should push these casual accusations to the logical end. For instance, who ultimately benefits from gutting safety nets? Do "the ultra-wealthy" benefit from an impoverished middle class? No, nor would the Tea Party and its adherents. So is it true that a considerable bloc of politicians actually aspire to "destroy Medicare" in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy? Is it true that Democrats desire government control for its own sake? Far too often, we take these accusations at face value.

Ryan has offered a vision. He is critical of alternate visions. He rightly calls on others to counter what he has proposed, and in the coming weeks, it's likely they will do just that. The formula that has the right amount of debt, the right amount of stimulus, and the right way to structure needed safety nets is hardly clear to anyone, and there is room for debate and genuine disagreement about how to best structure our public sector to help generate healthcare, growth and a degree of economic stability in the years ahead.

Assuming there is only one set of views that correspond to a desire for a better future assumes there is only one truth. That may work for the cardinals assembling in the Vatican to elect a new pope. But a representative democracy? We can debate it, but I'm dubious.

"The Edgy Optimist" column is initially published at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site