September 25, 2020

Week in Review: The Budget Debate, Revealed

The battle ahead “is the big one, and goes to the very major questions about the role of government,” said G. William Hoagland, a former Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee. “This is going to be a very fundamental clash of ideologies.”

The Democratic and Republican Parties have their own internal tensions to address as the debate goes forward in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail. But in its early stages at least, it is liberals who are on the defensive.

The aging of the baby boom generation and the costs of maintaining Medicare and Social Security have put the two pillars of the social welfare system on the table for re-examination. The growing weight of the national debt has given urgency to the question of whether the government has become too big and expensive.

The tepid nature of the current economic recovery, following big stimulus packages, has provided an opening to challenge the effectiveness of Keynesianism as the default policy option for government. And the revived energy of grass-roots conservatives has given electoral clout to the movement’s intellectual and constitutional arguments.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research organization, said, “The optimistic view is that we have a confluence of the business cycle, of the demography and of the politics that makes it not just possible to achieve real change, but impossible that we not deal with these things if we want this country to continue on the path envisioned by the founders.” So just two and a half years after a presidential election that was in part a repudiation of conservative governance, and with the nation still smarting from the aftereffects of a financial crisis that grew out of failures of markets and regulation, President Obama finds himself in a somewhat surprising position: forced to articulate and sell a vision of how liberalism and the institutions it built in the 20th century can be updated for the constraints of the 21st. 

The speech he delivered Wednesday at George Washington University in Washington was his most ambitious effort so far to do so. In it, he harnessed the language of both left and right to argue against the extremes on both sides while suggesting that many of their core principles were not mutually exclusive — in other words, that Great Society values can endure in a Tea Party moment.

He defined “patriotism” as a shared sense of responsibility for the vulnerable and less fortunate. Basic standards of security for the elderly and poor and government investment in a more prosperous future, he said, can not only coexist with a tradition of “rugged individualists with a healthy skepticism of too much government,” but are also a vital part of what makes America exceptional.

“We are a better country because of these commitments,” he said. “I’ll go further — we would not be a great country without those commitments.”

Republicans in Congress, he suggested, would shred that tradition under cover of a debate that is only nominally about the budget. “The fact is,” he said, “their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”

Conservatives would and did object to his implication of heartlessness, but not necessarily to his assessment of their ambition.

The Republican plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Budget Committee, and adopted by the House on Friday as its policy blueprint for the next decade contains a substantial dose of deficit reduction but is really a manifesto for limited government.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=4502f269b76d86d01ae54532e839677a

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