Democrats want the 2012 elections to turn on the question of which party has a better vision for the country, and to win the ensuing battle of public perception, both parties are putting the brightest shine they can on their particular designs.
On Wednesday, the GOP pitted conservative darling Paul Ryan against liberal hero Elizabeth Warren, with Ryan serving as a tribune to wealthy Americans and Warren as a populist fighter for working people.
This may seem like an odd choice for the GOP. Ryan’s the Republicans’ top budget guy, and the person most responsible for tying his party to a plan to phase out Medicare and to use the savings to reduce taxes on wealthy Americans. That vision has proved disastrously unpopular, and the GOP has spent months trying to dig themselves out from under the avalanche of ensuing public opinion polls. But Ryan ironically remains the GOP’s preferred spokesman on these issues, and he tackled Warren head on after a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in which he defended wealthy Americans from growing calls for higher taxes on their income, and attacked President Obama and Democrats for engaging in what he calls “class warfare.”
Warren, who’s hoping to defeat Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) in 2012, has made the most digestible case for this sort of plan — to shore up the social safety net and fund jobs programs with higher taxes on the rich, who’ve seen their incomes skyrocket in recent years. She took this case to voters several weeks ago and it set the Internet ablaze.
You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Moderator Ed Fuelner asked Ryan to respond to this argument. Ryan dismissed it as the “fatal conceit of liberalism.”
“Money and wealth made and created in America is the government’s unless they benevolently spend it back to people. It’s the other way around,” Ryan said. “No one is suggesting that we don’t need good schools and roads and infrastructure as a basis for a free society and a free enterprise system. But the notion that the nucleus of society is the government and not the individual, the family, the entrepreneur, is to me just completely, inherently backwards.”
This elides the Warren’s basic argument: that government provides some of the basic foundations for prosperity, pays for those foundations with tax revenues, and the people who benefit the most from those provisions should pay a significant share of the cost of maintaining and improving them. But Ryan did make a discernible case, to both wealthy and non-wealthy alike, that Warren’s argument is wrong and that a trimmed down government and a low tax burden on the wealthy is in the nation’s broad interest.
That’s not to say it’s correct.
A Tuesday report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that under conservative policies, wealthy are paying less and getting more while everybody else has stagnated. Top earners have hoovered up the vast majority of income growth in the past three decades while simultaneously their share of the tax burden has declined, and their share of government services has increased.
Ryan said he hasn’t read that report yet, but obliquely praised the policies that have exacerbated this trend.
“Let’s not focus on redistribution, let’s focus on upward mobility,” he said. “If these studies are used as justification for erecting new and more barriers for making it harder for people to rise, all that will do is reduce our prosperity in this country.”
“We’re coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition. Because what we will end up doing is we will convert our safety net system — which is necessary I believe to help people who can’t themselves, to help people who are down on their luck get back onto their feet — into a hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency and complacency which drains them of their incentive and the will to make the most of their lives.”
Ryan’s counterargument, in other words, isn’t just that Warren’s wrong about who should pay, but that she’s wrong about what they and the government should be paying for.
“Telling Americans that they’re stuck in their current station in life, that they’re a victim of circumstances beyond their control, and that the government’s role is to help them cope with it,” Ryan posited. “That’s not who we are, that’s not what we do.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.