If hysteria and hyperbole could balance the budget, we would be running record surpluses right now. In that parallel universe, the Democratic reaction to Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal would wash away the red ink much faster than Ryan himself.
Consider this brainstorm by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the new head of the Democratic National Committee: “This Republican path to poverty passes like a tornado through seniors’ nursing homes.” Schultz isn’t the only siren screeching out a warning to take refuge in the storm cellar. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) is conducting an air raid drill.
“Make no mistake about it, the Ryan budget is a war on seniors,” she said in a press conference organized by the Congressional Task Force on Seniors. “Newt Gingrich has said Medicare should wither on the vine. Well, this Republican budget would chop it down.” The new civility didn’t stop there: “Republicans are literally trying to kill Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Democrats will stand of the way of their war on seniors.”
The ever-excitable Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was not to be outdone: “They use Medicaid as a piggy bank in order to avoid asking the people at the very top of our economic ladder, the very richest in our society, the highest income earners of millions and dollars or more, to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”
Finally, there was the president himself. “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,” Obama intoned during his April 13 speech asking for a post-Ryan do-over on his 2012 budget. Obama continued:
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.
William Kristol rightly compared Obama’s remarks to Ted Kennedy’s infamous “Robert Bork’s America” speech. In 1987, Kennedy accused Bork of wanting to force blacks to eat at segregated lunch counters while censoring artists, banning the teaching of evolution, and subjecting every American to the midnight knock at the door. Maybe Kennedy just had better speechwriters than contemporary Democrats.
But that’s not the only time we’ve been down this apocalyptic road. Before a Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed welfare reform, Democratic politicians and liberal activists casually tossed around dire predictions of a million additional children being consigned to poverty. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Was.) said the bill would “put 1.5 million to 2.5 million children into poverty” within two years of becoming law.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) warned that welfare reform would leave “children hungry and homeless… begging for money, begging for food, and even at eight and nine years old engaging in prostitution.” Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) called it an “abomination” and imagined it could lead to children being sold into slavery. Marian Wright Edelman wrote contemptuously of the need to reduce spending: “It is nonsense for congressional leaders to argue that they are protecting children from a future debt children did not create by destroying the vital laws and investments children need to live, learn, and grow today.”
Replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children — welfare as we knew it — with a block grant to the states and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said we could expect children to seek warmth by sleeping on sewer grates: “We will say, ‘Why are these children sleeping on grates? Why are they being picked up in the morning frozen? Why are they scrambling? Why are they horrible to each other, a menace to all, most importantly to themselves?'” Moynihan, who should have known better, worried that even his fellow Democrats were “literally arranging flowers on the coffin of the provision for children in the Social Security Act.”
Needless to say, none of this actually happened. Welfare reform was not without its flaws, but after it was enacted caseloads were reduced by 57 percent in ten years and child poverty dropped by 1 percent per year for the first five years. Child poverty rates remain below their pre-1996 levels despite a severe economic downturn and lackluster post-recession job growth.
Just because the most apoplectic liberals were as wrong about welfare reform as they were about the Reagan tax cuts spurring hyperinflation — when it fact they helped whip stagflation — does not necessarily mean that they are wrong about Paul Ryan’s Medicare and Medicaid reforms. But it does give us reason to distrust those who are so confident in government while having so little confidence in ordinary people. The budget cannot be balanced by their fear-mongering and moral outrage.
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