He divides the contemporary GOP into reform and rejectionist variants, the latter being libertarians and Tea Party types who want to roll back some of the endless expansion of executive power that’s gone on for 150 years (not coincidentally, during yesterday’s Paul v. Paul debate, that’s exactly where former Enron consultant Paul Krugman said Ron Paul was living, “a world that was 150 years ago”), and the former being establishment figures like, he says, Rep. Paul Ryan, who have conceded to the “Lincoln and Hamilton revolutions.”
But just look at his lazy, contemptuous shorthand for the hard-liners:
On one side there are Rejectionist Conservatives, who come in a variety of forms. There are libertarians who view federal taxation, except to fund a few night-watchman roles, as theft. There are tea party activists who believe that any federal power must be specifically enumerated in the Constitution — and then interpret the Constitution as if it were the Articles of Confederation. And then there is Ron Paul, who seeks to overturn the Lincoln and Hamilton revolutions.
A government of enumerated powers! The horror!
It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest Paul Ryan represents the antithesis of “rejectionist” faction because it ignores the fact that his budget is largely a capitulation to it. Gerson apparently believes the GOP establishment suddenly would have woken up to the reality of looming debt crisis without the Tea Party’s hard line on domestic spending.
Ryan’s approach is least impressive in confronting America’s main social problem — a lack of social capital and economic mobility at the bottom of the income scale. There are a variety of good conservative ideas to encourage teacher quality, savings and wealth building, financial literacy, good parenting skills, and high school and college completion. They are not even a peripheral part of the Ryan agenda, which is dominated by addressing the fiscal crisis.
When it comes to the budget, there are plenty of uncomfortable ideological truths to go around. It is a fact that the historical portion of the economy taken in taxes by the federal government — around 18 percent since World War II — will not be sufficient in the future. Even reformed federal health commitments — along with national defense, the normal workings of government, and the promotion of competitiveness and economic mobility — will require more revenue.
But it is also a fact that entitlement reform is the prerequisite to any non-terrifying economic future. For all its flaws, Ryan’s Reform Conservatism takes America’s largest problem seriously — while Obama does not.
The dichotomy between reform and rejectionist wings of the GOP is conceptually helpful but I think it also obscures one of the main benefits of a budget like Paul Ryan’s, which is that it provides new latitude for other institutions to confront “America’s main social problem” where the federal government has clearly failed.
And that’s why I don’t think the two factions are as oppositional as Gerson says. He ends the first column by saying the real fight is between Obama’s “unreconstructed liberalism” and the reform conservatism of Paul Ryan, which is true in the context of this election, but to the rejectionistas that’s something akin to arguing about the cornices on the Tower of Babel. And that faction isn’t going anywhere. Besides, any Republican worth their party credentials would be thrilled at the idea of civil institutions and local governments taking over some if not all of the current functions of the federal government if they could be done better that way, the fear is that they can’t or won’t. Portraying the Tea Party/libertarian wing as insufficiently faithful to federal non-solutions is to ignore the fact that they’ve put their faith in civil society–which is to say the American people–instead.