A budget proposal needn’t tell you very much about the priorities of the people who drafted it. The last administration budget is a case in point. It’s transparently an opening pitch in a negotiation, offered in the knowledge that the deal eventually struck among the White House, a Democratic Senate and a Republican House won’t look much like any of their proposals going in. An adept negotiator doesn’t wear his priorities on his sleeve. The last thing he wants his counter-parties to know is exactly how he computes his bottom line.“What’s clear is that is that Ryan has rekindled an epic fight over values, priorities and the role that government plays in the lives of its citizens. That could be uncomfortable for some Republicans — and budget resolutions typically are adopted by the narrowest of margins in the House — but it’s a debate many of Ryan’s colleagues want to engage in as soon as possible.”
Whatever else it may be, Ryan’s budget isn’t an invitation to negotiate. It’s the opening statement in a protracted ideological argument conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are going to be having about the shape the political economy. Ryan’s trying to be as transparent as he can be about his priorities in the hope that persuadable independents will come to embrace them and liberals will cede some ideological ground in the face of them. The fact that Republicans have chosen Ryan to speak in their name shows that this is an argument that they’ve collectively decided that they want to have.
Where do you go to hear the counter-argument? All I’m hearing is prominent Democratic politicians and liberal intellectuals letting off steam about how draconian spending cuts Ryan’s proposing really are and how radically he’s proposing to change Medicare and Medicaid. All that’s true enough, but it doesn’t tell us much of anything about how we’re going to sustainably finance these entitlements in anything like their present form, and what government should keep doing if we can’t afford to have it do all the things it's doing now. That would require that liberals be as upfront about their priorities as Ryan's being about his. Evidently, that’s an argument that Democrats, and the liberals who supply them with intellectual firepower, have decided not to join.
I'm no political handicapper, but I can see how keeping their priorities to themselves might help Democrats win some fine points in the budget negotiation and more votes in the next election. But how do liberals expect to hold their own with conservatives in the ideological argument over the shape of government if they can’t find their voice?