The Ryan Response and the Politics of Austerity

01/26/2011 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Robert Creamer Political Organizer, Strategist, Author; Partner Democracy Partners

The contrast between the values underlying President Obama's State of the Union Address and Representative Paul Ryan's Republican response could not have been more stark.

Ryan's response to the president's call that America win the future... was a demand that we return to the past.

His answer to Obama's appeal that we are "all in this together" was an unvarnished vision of "law of the jungle" social Darwinism.

He responded to the hope that we can succeed... with the fear that "America's best century will be considered the past century."

And from the political point of view -- most telling -- he responded to Obama's call that we invest in the future with what amounted to a call for austerity.

By framing the coming battle over national priorities as he did, President Obama set up a contrast with the Republicans that is a massive winner for Democrats and progressives. By taking the bait, Representative Ryan sharpened the contrast.

The Republicans could not have chosen a better person to respond to the president -- at least from the Democratic point of view.

The plain fact is that, as much as Republicans don't want to believe it, progressive values are the values that define the center of American politics. When they are expressed confidently and contrasted with those of the Republican right, they provide a solid foundation for political success.

Let's focus on four key contrasts.

1). Future versus Past. As MSNBC points out in its "Lean Forward" ads, human beings are not built to stand still or go backward. We are built to evolve -- to yearn for the future -- to make the next generation better than the last. It is one of our species' most important selective traits. And America's owes much of its success as a society and as an ideal to the fact that its social fabric has internalized this innate human desire for progress.

Just as a shark has to move forward to breathe, so too does American society. If we stop moving forward, we will wither and die.

Appeals to nostalgic images of the past sometimes work politically when they are offered as an alternative to confusion and fear. But they don't work if they are offered as alternatives to a clear call that we invest in the future.

More than anything, this generation of Americans want their children and grandchildren to have better lives than we do. That central goal, more than anything else, defines the high political ground -- the center -- in American politics.

Last night, President Obama made it crystal clear that that goal is his central measure of his success as well.

2). We're all in this together versus social Darwinism. President Obama was eloquent in describing his vision that every child -- and every ethnic group -- are all part of an American family that will succeed or fail together. He expressed his fundamental confidence that everyone could make a contribution to our future.

Ryan did not. In describing the future of society dominated by what he calls "big government," he said:

"This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency."

You have to ask what planet Ryan woke up on. America does not lack for people who work hard. We have the most productive workforce in the world. Millions of Americans would love to work hard, the problem is they can't find a job because Ryan's "successful" friends on Wall Street engaged in an orgy of reckless speculation that sunk the economy and put eight million people out of work.

But frankly, it's self-defeating, bad politics for Republicans like Ryan to be blaming the laziness of middle-class Americans for our economic problems. Average voters don't find patronizing, elitist concern for how Americans workers are getting "soft" and "dependent" particularly compelling.

In fact, in the context of the suffering and pain that Wall Street inflicted upon average Americans, it sounds downright ridiculous. And of course that is especially true while Ryan's Wall Street friends continue to pay themselves tens of millions of dollars for speculating on financial markets.

Some people make products in our economy. Others make bets. In Ryan's social Darwinist world it's perfectly fine for those who make the bets to get rich, while those who could and should be making products are left in the scrap heap.

3). Hope versus Fear. President Obama's speech brought a message of hope. Obama was resolute in his belief that America can succeed. Ryan's speech was laced with fear. He argued:

"We still have time... but not much time. If we continue down our current path, we know what our future will be. Just take a look at what's happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe."

The American economy is not the economy of Greece. We are not about to default on our debts (unless of course Republicans refuse to raise the national debt limit and artificially default).

In fact, of course, the cause of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression was not "overspending government" any more than that was the cause of the Great Depression itself. In both cases the cause was under-regulated Wall Street and precisely the philosophy Ryan proposes to adopt.

Economic fear is not the only fear to which Republicans will pander in the coming year. Republican-led committees in the House are launching "investigations" of administration enforcement of immigration laws; "radicalized" Muslims; and the "New Black Panthers."

But in the end hope trumps fear -- as long as the voters believe that those who lead us have a credible, reality-based plan to turn hope into reality.

4). Investment in the Future versus Austerity. Rather than simply sitting by and hoping that things will improve -- rather than give up attempting to shape better lives and let our future be determined by the sharpest speculators -- President Obama proposed that America invest in making that hope into reality.

He called this a new "Sputnik moment." A moment like one in the early 1960's when President Kennedy called on the country to invest in the technology, education, productive skill and spirit to make America succeed in space -- and create a massive new generation of innovation and economic progress. Obama said:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

Ryan's earlier "Road Map" proposal for the economy, and his speech last night, warned that these "investments" were really just more government spending and advocated precisely the same kind of economic austerity program that is a recipe for economic stagnation. Luckily, austerity proposals are also a recipe for political defeat.

Just ask Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron how popular it is to raise tuition for college students and cut back on education, while continuing to allow the wealthiest people in the land to escalate their massive incomes.

Those who advocate "austerity" always say "we must all tighten our belts." But the Republicans really mean that "we" need to tighten our belts so that a tiny number of millionaires can be free to make millions, unrestrained. In the end -- when the rubber meets the road and there are specific proposals for cuts that impact everyday people's lives -- that will become more and more clear to everyday voters.

But what is just as important, in the words of an old TV commercial, "Americans don't just want to survive, they want to succeed." They are willing to sacrifice to succeed, but not just to survive.

In fact, in his speech last night, President Obama called on Americans to sacrifice:

"Sustaining the American dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age. Now it's our turn."

But he didn't call on Americans to sacrifice to return to the past -- or to keep things the way they are. He didn't make President Carter's mistake of appearing to ask people to lower their expectations. Just the contrary, he asked them to be heroic, to sacrifice now to assure that we make progress -- that the next generation has a better life than the one we enjoy - more freedom, more possibilities, more opportunity. That is the kind of call to sacrifice that inspires people.

The fundamental error of those who advocate that "we" must get along with less -- that we can't afford to give more educational opportunity to our kids, or a secure retirement to our seniors, or health care to every American -- is that they are calling on most Americans simply to lower their aspirations -- to abandon their hopes for a better life.

And that is especially true when most Americans are being asked to sacrifice so that very few -- the elite on Wall Street -- can continue to increase their control of more and more of our income and wealth creating a level of income inequality not seen since the 1920's.

When given the choice between aspiration and austerity, Americans will choose aspiration every time.

Last night's speeches framed clearly the battle that will rage for the next two years -- and the battle for our future.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on