The Magazine

Paul Ryan’s America

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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It’s a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. Who are these 50 million Americans? Many are somebody’s grandparents, maybe one of yours, who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities .  .  . so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

President Barack Obama, April 13, 2011

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens. .  .  .

—Senator Edward Kennedy, July 1, 1987

Some things never change. Take American liberalism (please!). Thirty years ago there was the sweet talk of the dream that shall never die. Two years ago there was the uplifting promise of hope and change. But when the political rubber meets the road, when there’s a possibility the left will lose power, then .  .  . then, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow. The shadow that reveals the truth about modern liberalism is dark. It’s about nightmares, not dreams. It’s about fearful clinging rather than hopeful changing. It’s about pandering and slandering rather than explaining and arguing.

The fear-mongering worked in 1987. Robert Bork, one of the great lawyers of our time, playing by the then-customary rules of Supreme Court nominations, didn’t feel he could defend himself, and wasn’t aggressively defended by his political allies. But even though Bork’s nomination was defeated, Kennedy’s assault didn’t work in a larger sense—George H.W. Bush won the presidency in 1988, Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995, and conservatives did pretty well politically for most of the rest of Edward Kennedy’s life.

Until 2006, that is, when for various reasons voters turned against the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Barack Obama rode that anti-Republican wave to the presidency in 2008. But a good look at liberalism unchecked under Barack Obama has reminded Americans of the liberalism of Edward Kennedy, and sent lots of them fleeing—including in Massachusetts, in the election for Kennedy’s Senate seat (or rather, the “people’s seat”). What’s more, in the last couple of years, Americans have taken a second look at conservatism—and they have found, for the most part, a refreshed and renewed political persuasion that is serious about our problems and eager to shape the future.

Barack Obama is as befuddled by this new conservatism as Edward Kennedy was by Ronald Reagan. So he’s playing the Kennedy card, the over-the-top assault on the decency of one’s political opponents, which—it’s presumed—will work because .  .  . well, because where there’s smoke there’s got to be fire, correct?

Not necessarily. In this case, we suspect, it will be clear to most Americans that Barack Obama is blowing smoke. The budget numbers, the spending numbers, the deficit numbers do not lie. There’s no longer a one-party media quasi-monopoly that makes it as easy to cover up reality as might have been the case 25 years ago. And Paul Ryan will defend himself in a way Robert Bork could not. Today’s conservatives will counterpunch in a way the late Reagan administration was unable to.

It’s going to be a heck of a battle over the next year and a half. There will be twists and turns, progress and setbacks, differences in strategy and arguments over tactics among conservatives and Republicans. But we are confident in the outcome.

Paul Ryan, the leader for now—and perhaps not just for now—of those arrayed against the forces of liberal distortion and slander, was 17 years old when Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court. The issues, the people, and the circumstances of the two eras are different. But perhaps those of us who are old enough to have seen close up the character assassination of Bork, and are still young enough to want to help fight those who are attempting to repeat the exercise against Paul Ryan and others, may be allowed to express with a sense of urgency the imperative: not again. No more victories for liberal demagoguery and fear-mongering. This is no longer Edward Kennedy’s America.

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