If Rep. Paul Ryan’s response to the State of the Union Address was intended to broaden support for his party’s agenda, or actually “respond” to the President’s speech, I suspect it failed. Ryan offered, instead, a base-friendly reinterpretation of the “state of the union” that made downsizing government not just an end in itself, but the answer to every problem.
Obama’s own proposals were brushed away in the response with the claim that “investment” just means “spending,” and that government needs to get out of the way and let the private sector take care of our needs. Actually, Ryan barely alluded to the current economic challenge, other than to say it wasn’t fixed by the 2009 stimulus legislation. Obama devoted much of his speech to a recitation of small, tangible ideas for what the federal government can do to promote private-sector growth and national competitiveness. Ryan’s response contained just one idea: limited government.
In a brief response, to be sure, nobody should expect a detailed agenda. But Ryan used about half his words for dog whistles to conservative activists. There were references to the Founders’ Original Intent, beloved (however selectively) of Tea Party folk, and to the Declaration of Independence, which is the document whereby conservative legal beagles try to sneak divine and natural law into the constitutional design. Ryan’s brief list of legitimate functions for government included “protecting innocent life,” a shout-out to the anti-abortion movement. Gold bugs were treated to a ritualistic invocation of the importance of “sound money.” And Ryan even appealed to the nasty, Randian underside of conservative hostility to “welfare” by citing a vague fear that America is turning “the social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”
As for the tone of the response, Ryan certainly did not reciprocate Obama’s constant pleas for bipartisan cooperation, instead treating the overthrow of every Obama policy of the last two years as the starting point for his party’s policy.
I’ve written elsewhere that Obama’s speech may have represented a clever trap to expose Republican extremism by embracing remarkably modest initiatives keyed to public sector roles in economic growth that most Americans have supported for decades. If so, Ryan walked right into that trap, and showed it’s the GOP who are now vulnerable to the charge that they are talking about everything other than the economy, and have no ideas for fixing it other than indiscriminate attacks on government, taxes, and regulations.
But there’s more: Those conservatives who didn’t think Ryan gave them enough red meat had the opportunity to tune into a second GOP response, on behalf of the Tea Party Express, from the noted fire-breather Rep. Michele Bachmann of MN. She omitted even Ryan’s meager bipartisan grace notes, and lurched from a cartoonish chart of unemployment rates to a set of dubious anecdotes about the crushing burden of regulations on “job creators” (the new conservative word for “corporations”). As she closed her remarks, her choice of the Battle of Iwo Jima as the best metaphor for America’s current position was appropriately puzzling.
Like other State of the Union addresses, this one is best understood as a framing device for future conflict and cooperation between the two parties. Judging by the GOP response(s), that party is determined to pursue confrontation with the goal of seeing how much damage it can do to the size and strength of the federal government. The economy has become just an afterthought.