In Paul Ryan's world, it is perfectly acceptable for the Republican Party to repeal the Clean Air Act, repeal the Clean Water Act, even repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- what Republicans contemptuously call "Obamacare." What is not acceptable, however, is for President Obama to conclude from the agenda above that Republicans want dirtier air, want dirtier water, want less people with health insurance.
"Can you think of a pettier way to describe sincere disagreements between the two parties on regulation and health care?" asked the Wisconsin Republican and House Budget Committee Chairman.
To Congressman Ryan, the issue between Republicans and Democrats isn't whether we'll have cleaner or dirtier air and water. It's whether there can be "sincere disagreements" between the parties in which no one, apparently, is held accountable if our air and water do in fact get dirtier.
Ryan is the Republicans' designated attack-dog now that President Obama has finally decided to come out swinging and call Republicans out by name for their obstructionism over the past three years that's prevented the federal government from taking a more active role to relieve the economic misery of millions of Americans suffering from the Great Wall Street Recession that began in 2008.
In a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation, Ryan accused the President of engaging in "divisive rhetoric" and cheap political point-scoring "instead of working together where we agree." What Ryan failed to note, it should be added, is that the entire 2012 GOP election strategy is predicated on the assumption that there will be no places where the President and Republicans might conceivably agree.
As with most right wing Republicans, to fully grasp Ryan's meaning you must first understand the alternative definitions he gives to the commonplace words he uses.
When Paul Ryan accuses the President of "divisiveness," for example, he does not mean what you or I might mean by "divisive" - the deliberate rejection of good-faith efforts to get along.
No, since Ryan is a reactionary who takes his own positions and preferences to be synonymous with the status quo, what Ryan means by "divisive" is Obama's obstinate refusal to conform to the view of the world that Paul Ryan and Republican Party have already established.
In a similar way, Ryan calls it "an ideological thing" that Obama "chose" not to work with Congress when he sent Republicans a jobs bill "he knew" had no chance of passing because it contained ideas Republicans have already rejected in the past. Apparently to Ryan, a President's not permitted to propose a bill he thinks might actually work if it falls outside the narrow ideological parameters House Republicans have already established for what is, and what is not, acceptable. And if the President goes ahead and proposes a bill unacceptable to the GOP anyway, it should merely be tossed aside as "an ideological thing" not worthy of serious consideration.
In the Ayn Rand-inspired universe of Paul Ryan, it doesn't matter how much harm you actually do just so long as long as you have the right motives for doing it. That's why Ryan is so furious with Obama for suggesting Republicans are actually "for" people not having health insurance when they vote to deny people health care coverage.
In Ryan-world, having the right principles is far more important than having specific solutions to problems. Thus, to Paul Ryan it's the rhetoric of class division "that is especially destabilizing" and not the reality of 10% unemployment.
Congress' favorability rating currently stands at 9%. That's nearly within the margin of error of universal, dissent-free agreement that Republicans suck. So, the more I read and listen to what Republicans like Paul Ryan have to say, the more suspicious I become that Republicans intend to defeat President Obama in 2012 by simply describing themselves.
In a fundraising letter sent out to big donors this week, for example, Congressman Ryan says: "America is at a tipping point. 14 million Americans are unemployed and 9.3 million are underemployed. Our debt has grown over $4 trillion in less than three years and will be above $16 trillion before the end of 2012. The safety net for the poor is coming apart at the seams and no one in Washington seems to care."
Steve Benen and Matt Yglesias are outraged by Ryan's jaw-dropping hypocrisy. To me, however, it's not clear whether Ryan sees the crisis he just described as a bad thing or as evidence the Republican plan is working.
The more that right wing radicals pull the Republican Party into the lunatic fringe the more elite opinion-makers like New York Times columnist David Brooks seem to urge the President and his party to forswear confrontation with Republicans in favor of blurring party differences instead.
In today's New Republic, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute dismiss such advice as the dangerous nonsense it is. It is based, they say, "on a series of tired and false assumptions" about who so-called "independents" really are and what they are really after. Heeding such advice, would only "doom whatever chance Obama has of winning reelection," they add.
It reminds me of this friend I have who's against economic stimulus, thinks tax cuts pay for themselves, thinks it's economic suicide to tax the rich, is against abortion, thinks marriage should only be between a man and a woman, is for bi-partisanship just so long as it means Obama works harder to get along with Republicans, thinks store clerks should say Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays and thinks Occupy Wall Street protesters are dirty, shiftless hippies out to destroy the country.
Yet, despite this verbatim re-creation of the right wing Republican agenda, my friend still insists on calling himself "an independent." And why, I ask? "Because I watch more than just Fox News."
On the other hand, the voting public might say it is more conservative and desire a more limited role for government, say Mann and Ornstein. "But that's more an expression of their general frustration with the state of the economy and the seeming failure of ambitious government initiatives to produce tangible results than their true convictions."
If you move beyond labels to get at real views on specific policy options, "you quickly realize that a conservative swing in public opinion is a chimera," says Mann and Ornstein.
True independents "have almost no ideological frameworks" with which to judge candidates, they add, since they vote almost entirely on whether something "works" or not.
Independents' greatest concern is with jobs and economic growth, Mann and Ornstein say, so independents could care less if those jobs materialize thanks to tax hikes, budget cuts or some combination of the two.
Finally, it was not President Obama who injected ideology into our politics when he decided to scrap bi-partisan compromise in favor of get-tough campaigning. The fault for that lies instead with the rightward shift of the Republican Party, Mann and Ornstein say.
"One cannot watch the Republican presidential candidate debates or listen to Republican leaders in Congress without concluding they are an insurgent party set on undoing many decades of policy that once enjoyed bipartisan support," the two long-time Congressional scholars say.
In the scorched-earth environment created by Republican recalcitrance, looking for some mythic political "center" won't earn Obama praise with swing voters, say Ornstein and Mann. Instead, "it'll just set him up for another year of looking weak and ineffectual."
Obama tried the route of conciliation once, say Mann and Ornstein, and Republicans turned it into a political liability for the President "through a disciplined campaign to oppose, obstruct, discredit, and nullify everything he has tried to do."
Indeed, by trying to work constructively with an ideologically-rigid party like the GOP, Obama "paid a tremendous political price" among both supporters and swing voters. Neither were impressed with Obama's fence-mending efforts and both judged him "weak" when the returns proved puny and the political system itself looked dysfunctional.
The only hope of achieving any bipartisan policy success at all will come, say Mann and Ornstein, when Republicans finally conclude that blocking the President's efforts to help the American people will cause them to pay a steep political price. That is unlikely to occur with further offers of the olive branch, but could come if Obama continues to do in the future what he is currently doing now, which is to turn up the heat.
The idea that Obama should "move to the center" is ridiculous, say Mann and Ornstein, because Obama is already there. It's his opponents who are inhabiting the extremes. Therefore, the proper course is for the President to be "explicit and forceful in communicating the stark differences between the parties and the source of inaction and gridlock in Washington."
To do anything less, they say, "would be a disservice to the public, his party, and his hopes for a constructive and consequential presidency."