Reihan Salam is, best as I can tell, the smartest right-wing pundit of his generation. He also seems, by and large, to be a decent guy. He’s not especially vitriolic or militant and he usually sounds to me like someone who is more interested in the minutiae of policy than the bloodsport of politics. If everyone on the Right was like him, Daily Caller comment threads would be less noxious. I suppose there’s some marginal value in that.
But the more Salam tries to defend Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, the more difficult it becomes to appreciate his temperamental virtues. On his National Review blog, Salam’s tried to defend Ryan’s plan as a good-faith attempt to encourage social mobility. In his latest The Daily column, he’s endeavored to disprove the President’s claim that Ryan’s advocating “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
In both instances he’s failed; and he’s failed in a manner that could lead an informed observer to question whether his arguments are consciously misleading or if the sophistry is an unavoidable consequence of supporting a transparently disingenuous politician.
First to the blog. A few days, ago Salam responded to an Ezra Klein piece he called “a lucid distillation of the emerging case against the Ryan budget.” Here’s the main take-away from the Klein piece:
[Ryan’s] right that the growth of social spending on the elderly is crowding out spending on the poor. And he was more convincing because he seemed to admit a hard truth that Republicans often deny: that government programs for the poor are a crucial way of ensuring income mobility, and as they get squeezed, so, too, do the life chances of those born at the base of the income ladder.
But it is difficult to believe that Ryan’s budget was written by the same guy…The cuts to education, to food stamps, to transportation infrastructure and to pretty much everything else besides defense are draconian. As for the tax reform component, it cuts taxes on millionaires by more than $250,000, but it doesn’t name a single loophole or tax break that Ryan and the Republicans would close.
In the end, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 62 percent of the cuts come from programs for low-income Americans and 37 percent of the tax benefits go to the few Americans earning more than $1 million.…
Five months ago, Ryan…condemned “empty promises that betray the powerless” and praised “the American idea that justice is done when we level the playing field at the starting line.” But it is hard to see his budget as anything less than a betrayal of the powerless.
And here’s a part of Salam’s response:
Do cuts to the federal budget for education, food stamps, and transportation infrastructure imply that Ryan thinks that the United States should spend less on education, food, and transportation? Another view is that Ryan believes that as the U.S. grows more affluent, a larger share of total expenditures on education, food, and transportation infrastructure should be paid for by some combination of the private sector and state and local governments drawing on their own resources. As a safety net program, the cost of food stamps varies with the business cycle. Our sense of what constitutes poverty evolves over time as we grow richer. But it seems plausible that if we do manage to increase economic growth and household income growth — Ryan’s stated goal — that we’d have less need of food stamps over time.
This is a frustrating retort to Klein’s criticism. Salam begins with a pretty by-the-book explanation of how choosing to strip programs to help the poor isn’t necessarily evidence of indifference or hostility to the poor. Yes, Ryan may be promoting the taking-away — but because he does not absolutely proscribe someone else picking up the slack. Curiously, Salam seems to think this is enough from which to argue that we can’t draw our conclusions as to how Ryan feels about social welfare policy. I don’t want to give everyone a free pony, but if someone else does, that’s fine with me. I am therefore not anti-free-pony policy.
Next there’s the business about the inherently relative nature of poverty, an argument I’ve seen often from conservatives and one that never stops striking me as a rather glib non sequitur. And then we have the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument, one whose breezy restatement puzzles me, coming, as it does, on the heels of a 30-year experiment that’s resulted in supreme inequality and the financial mess Ryan deigns to fix. I know Salam’s heard this all before and is familiar with this line of criticism’s contours; I don’t understand why he writes as if he hasn’t and is not.
Problematic as it may be, however, the National Review post has much more to say in its favor than Salam’s Daily op-ed, published a few days later.
Obviously, there are inherent limitations when writing an op-ed for a popular audience. And although Salam is not a writer that editors turn to when they need a shot of bomb-throwing capital-O opinion, he still needs to express a clear point-of-view in his column. Doing that within the context of a debate on fiscal matters — and with limited space — is going to result in some unavoidable oversimplification. But the column Salam wrote on Obama-Ryan is not bad because it drains the conflict of its nuance and particulars. It’s bad because it presents its audience with a woefully incomplete, incorrect picture of what the debate’s even about.
Here’s the basic conceit of the piece: Obama calls the Ryan plan radical, but it’s not — in fact, it’s quite similar to Obama’s own. Salam makes the point by focusing on how the respective pols propose to handle the rising costs of Medicare:
To return to Medicare for a moment, Obama aims to achieve this goal by empowering the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a panel of experts on medical care, to devise reforms that would be imposed on medical providers. Ryan’s approach is to empower Medicare beneficiaries to choose insurance plans, public or private, that best meet their needs, with the understanding that most will choose cost-effective plans that offer quality care.
It’s not obvious that one of these approaches is more “radical” than the other. Central planning and market competition both have a long pedigree in American life.
The problem? The problem is that, however much the President may claim to disagree with how Ryan wants to “reform” Medicare (significantly, Obama implemented the controversial “end Medicare as-we-know-it” talking point), the thrust of his speech’s criticism was overwhelmingly about Ryan’s tax cuts and how he proposed to pay for them. It was the latest, most pugnacious entry in a growing catalog of speeches from the President intended to frame the election as a referendum on inequality. In this context, the consequences of Ryan’s plans for Medicare matter; but it wasn’t a speech about any one program or about policy levers.
For Salam to imply that what Obama’s calling radical is “market competition” is very strange, and if he had a more checkered past with truth, I’d be inclined to call it a sleight of hand. My hope, though, is that Salam is merely one of Ryan’s many media victims — a long and seemingly ever-increasing list of elite pundits willing to embarrass themselves (for reasons beyond my abilities to divine) in their defense of the Wisconsin Objectivist. With any luck, Ryan won’t get the chance to add his proposed 14-27 million more notches to his belt.
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)