In yesterday’s column, George Will wrote that
When Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan, Republicans undertook the perilous but commendable project of forcing voters to face the fact that they fervently hold flatly incompatible beliefs. Twice as many Americans idenify themselves as conservatives as opposed to liberal. On Nov. 6 we will know if they mean it.
Will focuses on “clientalism” as the hallmark of the modern liberalism that conservatives oppose. But he also decries New Deal- and Great Society-era entitlement programs that, he suggests, are policy requisites for that clientalism.
Enter Paul Ryan’s full-throated defense of Medicare in his convention speech yesterday. His commitment to the permanency of this entitlement program could not have been stated more emphatically:
Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it. A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my Mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours.
To be sure, Ryan’s defense of Medicare is conservative in the sense that it defends a status-quo policy against an even more intrusive and redistributionist policy. But its import for conservatism is more than that. In his speech, Ryan placed himself and Romney squarely on one side of a fault line that divides American conservatism: Ryan is reconciled with the existence of the social-insurance state. He doesn’t just tolerate Medicare as a practical political necessity, he commits to it. Contrary to Will’s intimation, this position can be an authentically conservative position. But it is conservative more in the mold of European-style Christian Democratic conservatism than in the mold of traditional American conservatism.
Ryan’s defense of Medicare is significant. Whatever the practicalities of Washington politics, a good part of modern American conservatism, both at elite and at popular levels, remains intellectually unreconciled to any form of New Deal-type social insurance policies, let alone to redistributive Great Society programs.
Given Ryan’s position as a, if not the, intellectual leader of congressional conservatives, if the Republican presidential ticket wins this election, Ryan’s speech could mark the point at which American conservatism turned definitively from a grudging, politically-expedient tolerance of social insurance to a recognition that it is fully consistent with robust forms of conservatism. By itself, this would represent a dramatic shift in American conservatism, as well as raise a host of additional questions for American conservatism and for American politics and policy. On the other hand, if this line being crossed results in the abstention of more than a very few economic libertarians or Jeffersonians in this year’s election, it could shift one or more swing states, and throw presidential elections to the Democrats.
Whatever the electoral outcome, Ryan’s selection by Romney serves as much to place added stress on fault lines within the GOP coalition as it does to call the bluff of the voting public. And if Romney and Ryan win, we may learn that those Americans who identify themselves as conservatives really ”mean it.” But even if American conservatives prove to George Will that they “mean it,” it may not be exactly the sort of conservatism that he anticipates.