While I disagree with the interpretation of Paul Krugman’s latest column in my colleague Paul’s post, I encourage everyone to read it and take its arguments about the Ryan budget, centrism, and rhetoric seriously. My take on the point of Krugman’s column is that far from “trashing anyone who might stand up for centrism, ” it in fact does exactly the opposite: it defends centrism by critiquing centrists who allow the tenets of a principled centrism to be ignored. If centrism as a doctrine is to mean anything, its proponents have a responsibility to examine the policy proposals of those who want to claim the centrist mantle.
And in Krugman’s view (and mine) the numbers that emerge from the details of the Ryan budget should preclude its embrace by centrists, who in theory should look for proposals that balance the budget by taking some ideas from the right (cutting spending) and some ideas from the left (increasing revenue). However, the Ryan reduces revenue by $4.6 trillion, doesn’t specify any of the loopholes that would need to be closed to pay for that decrease in order to avoid exploding the deficit, and sets a target for government spending on everything other than Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and Social Security at a ludicrously low 3.75% of GDP. (As Jonathon Bernstein notes, “Since Ryan has separately objected to cuts in the military below 4% of GDP, it means that Ryan would theoretically not be able to meet his own target, even if he shut down student loans, FEMA, NASA and the National Weather Service, the FBI and federal prisons, all immigration enforcement, the FDA and other food safety programs, air traffic control, and more. Including programs for veterans.”)
The Ryan budget, then, certainly represents many things over which there could be legitimate disagreement: among them, the proper size of government, the level of support that the government should provide to our nation’s poor, and the economic effectiveness of continuing and extending tax cuts for the wealthiest among us. But, as it only relies on tax cuts and even then would fail to close the deficit, it is clearly not a centrist document in any meaningful sense of the word.
The larger point, I think, is that allowing such a proposal to be labeled “reasonably centrist” without examining its contents closely does real damage to centrism. There is, as Paul notes, a real constituency amongst American voters for centrist, bipartisan solutions to our problems. And it seems to me that presenting the Ryan budget to those voters as centrist does more damage to the future possibility of truly centrist solutions than Krugman’s attempt to honestly (if harshly) assess whether the proposal is being given a pass without being examined.