What would you call an outraged critic of the House Republican budget whose one-sided distribution of costs and benefits cleaves precisely along class lines, with 37% of all tax benefits going to those at the very top while 60% of the budget's burdens are borne by those at the bottom? Well, if you were today's Republicans you'd call such a scold: "Divisive."
What would you call a critic who thinks it immoral that the way to help the poor climb out of poverty is to raise their taxes by as much as $4,000 a year, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor thinks we should do, so that wealthy "job creators" can have even more to perhaps spend and invest on employment opportunities for those 70 million Americans the Wall Street Journal calls "lucky duckies" too poor to pay income taxes? Well, if you were a Republican you'd call such a skeptic: "Negative."
And what do you call President Obama when he shines a light on the Romney/Ryan Republican budget, exposing truths about the plan's specifics that its architects would rather keep vague? Well, as Paul Krugman of the New York Times says, if you are Obama's Republican critics the word of choice would be: "Partisan."
Since divisive, negative and partisan are bad things that don't poll well with independents, you can bet Republicans will accuse the President of one, if not all three, of these moral imperfections whenever he attacks Republican proposals as "radical" or "outside the American mainstream," no matter how right the President might be on the merits.
The 2012 election is shaping up to be a contest about "Big Ideas," which means that it will turn on the competing visions that have always animated American politics in the past: Whether we are a single country or a bickering confederation of separate states and regions; whether Americans collectively pulling together is a sign of a healthy democracy or of an enervating "Socialism!;" whether E Pluribus Unum is a motto we can all be proud of or whether it's a menace to our racial, religious and cultural identities.
Because 2012 will be about Big Things that also means it will be a contest in which much of the specificity on real issues will get siphoned out as we dig in for the long, hard slog of a campaign over competing slogans, catch phrases and buzz words.
It's like what Thomas Frank said in his mostly sympathetic Harper's obituary on the late right wing bomb-thrower Andrew Breitbart -- that Breitbart's worldview was both a wholly politicized one that saw "every stray comment" as a work "of fiendish propaganda" but also one that was completely superficial. "He was an ardent collector of grievances, of the stupid things public figures say about one another," says Frank. "But the actual substance of controversy mattered very little."
In a similar way, when President Obama talks about the wealthy "paying their fair share" to support health and educational programs that give others a chance to get ahead, Romney ridiculously talks about funding for these valuable programs being the way Democrats "punish success."
Thus, when Obama talks about investing in alternative energy to end our dependence on fossil fuels, Romney says what we need to do instead is stop "the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends' businesses."
Thus, when the President talks about respecting labor and the right of workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions, Romney says the real issue is stopping "the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing."
Thus, when the President talks about the need for government to keep teachers in the classroom and cops on the beat Romney says he will "stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve."
Thus, when the President talks about having to pull himself up by his own bootstraps because he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth Mitt Romney thinks Obama is talking about him and boo-hoos that the President is waging "class warfare" against his kind.
Romney trotted all these ideas out in a victory speech following his five-state sweep earlier this week that has conservatives everywhere swooning that the presumptive Republican nominee has finally found his voice with an economic message he can ride to the White House.
Less worshipful observers are wondering, however: Where's the beef?
"Romney delivered a 15-minute address that was heavy on rhetoric and light on policy proposals," reports Reid Epstein in Politico. "He offered familiar criticisms of President Barack Obama with signature syrupy paeans to Americana while offering the quadrennial challenger's question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Yet, when Obama offered far more meat in his own kick-off speech to the Associated Press earlier this year - charging, for example, that the Ryan Budget which Mitt Romney has embraced would cause more than 10 million college students to see their financial aid cut by $1,000; would mean Alzheimer's research would be slashed; would mean 200,000 children would lose their chance to enter Head Start - Republicans heard only atmospherics.
The Washington Post's resident Romney apologist, Jennifer Rubin, accused the President of engaging in a "hyper-partisan jag" during an "overly political address" that she says was at odds with Obama's optimistic message of hope and change - an ideological "throwback to the Democratic rhetoric of decades past."
Tellingly, not once in Rubin's Frank Luntz-inspired takedown did Rubin engage the specifics of Obama's complaint or consider whether that complaint might be justified. The mere fact of the President being critical of her guy was all it took to earn the President the content-free opprobrium: "Negative."
Not to be out done, New York Times conservative David Brooks accused the President of taking "the low road" in that same speech -- of leveling an "embarrassing avalanche of distortion," of unleashing "every 1980s liberal cliché in the book," and of resorting "to hoary, brain-dead clichés" to make Republicans look heartless and mean.
This, after Brooks conceded the Romney-endorsed blueprint "has some disturbing weaknesses," such as: It would "cut too deeply" into discretionary spending; produce "self-destructive cuts" in scientific research, health care for poor kids and programs that boost social mobility;" openly promote "regressive" tax cuts for the wealthy; and dishonestly fail to identify those closed tax loopholes "that might hurt Republican donors."
Thus, after essentially corroborating the President's damning case against the Romney/Ryan budget, Brooks then accuses the President of falsifying evidence.
Brooks is right, up to a point, says Ezra Klein of the Washington Post. Obama did attack cuts that appear nowhere in the Romney/Ryan budget. But that's only because "Ryan refused to provide the specifics himself."
Budgets like Paul Ryan's matter, say Klein, because they are one of the few times in a campaign when the parties can't hide behind their vague abstractions and poll tested platitudes but must instead put real numbers on the table we can see and dissect. And in those numbers, says Klein, "we can see the decisions the parties make when they're forced to choose between competing priorities and constituencies."
Numbers matter, says Klein, because they show what the fights in American politics "are ultimately about." But that can only happen if we force those numbers "off the page and into the world voters actually inhabit."
And like the unnamed federal agencies Mitt Romney says he intends to eliminate, or the loopholes Paul Ryan says he'll close but refuses to identify, Republicans want to take credit for being sharp-knifed budget cutters but without paying the political price that goes with it by telling us what those cuts would be.
And whenever Obama does try to flesh out the details so that the national debate over budget priorities gets "the rigor and clarity" it deserves, Republicans cry "foul," as Romney did in his victory speech this week, accusing the President of waging a "campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions."
But the truth is, says Klein, that under the Romney/Ryan budget, cuts to education, food stamps, transportation infrastructure "and to pretty much everything else besides defense," are draconian while a Medicaid program that covers more than 25 million children would be hit "with particular force."
Ryan wants none of this out in the open, says Klein. But if the only way to defend the Romney/Ryan budget is to beat back any attempt to make their cuts specific, then the budget itself "is an empty, useless document."
If ever there was a case of Democrats being from Venus and Republicans from Mars it's the debate over putting the nation's finances in order.
President Obama says there are only two ways to deal with the deficit. We can either adopt a balanced package of spending cuts and tax hikes. Or, those "who've done extraordinarily well" by America can get another free ride while the "entire burden gets placed on the middle class and the poor."
Stunningly, Paul Ryan calls this "a stunning assertion from the President."
Spending cuts plus tax hikes do not equal deficit reduction, says Ryan. Indeed, tax hikes don't figure into the equation at all. The real winning formula, says Ryan, is "reasonable, responsible spending restraint" combined with "economic growth" fueled by tax cuts for the wealthy. Of course. To suggest any different, says Ryan, is to succumb to the President's feeble and faulty "zero-sum logic."
We're entering brand new political territory here.
Remember the old economist's joke -- "assume full employment...?" Paul Ryan's fuzzy budget math is no less phantasmagorical. Assume tax cuts pay for themselves, says Ryan. Assume further that massive cuts to the health, education, income and food assistance programs relied on by the poor don't hurt the poor at all but instead give them jobs that wouldn't exist otherwise.
Conservatives are like medieval alchemists who believe they can turn lead into gold, so no amount of historical or empirical evidence that supply-side economics doesn't deliver what it promises will persuade them to relax their white-knuckled death grip on the superstition that every economic trouble can be solved with another tax cut for the rich. Because conservatives don't want to be persuaded. And they have powerful incentives to remain so.
Ryan's dispute with Obama over the budget, like his presumptuous lecturing of the Catholic bishops over the true meaning of the Church's social justice doctrines, are not based on real facts or arguments but rather on ideologically plausible ones. And like Arizona Republican John Kyl when he said his attacks against Planned Parenthood on the Senate floor "were not intended to be a factual statement," Ryan's arguments on the budget are not meant to be true. They are only intended to be plausible so that right wing militants like him can screw the poor on behalf of privilege and do so with a clear conscience.
How is this possible, asks David Frum, one of the few conservatives still left in existence who cares about facts and intellectual integrity, that Paul Ryan could give a major speech about the nation's looming debt crisis and completely "walk past" the single most important fact of federal budgeting -- which is the drop in federal revenues and the demand for federal spending caused by the economic collapse of 2008-2009?
How can Republicans make credible plans for the future, wonders Frum, "if they blind themselves to what is happening all around them in the present?"
The ancients warned us there would be times like these. Remember Plato's Allegory of the Cave from The Republic? Prisoners were shackled in such a way they could only see the shadows projected on the wall in front of them by the fire that burned behind them. Over time, these cave dwellers would mistake the shadows on the wall for the objects they refused to believe were real whenever they were freed from their confinement.
The lessons of Plato's Cave became the inspiration for Walter Lippmann's own concept of "stereotypes," a word he coined and developed in his 1922 classic, Public Opinion.
As Lippmann described it, stereotypes are "the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society." However unreal these imagined ideas might be, stereotypes do provide "a more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves."
Stereotypes may not provide a complete or accurate picture of the world, Lippmann conceded, but they do offer a picture "of a possible world to which we are adapted." And in this world, he says, "people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members."
Stereotypes are, in short, "the fortress of our traditions," behind whose defenses "we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy."
Of course, Lippmann's stereotypes are not "fortresses" at all, but prisons - prisons just like Plato's Cave where, if Republicans get their way, people will never get to see the world as it really is but only the manipulative representations of it, visible in the Republican's flickering falsehoods where the reality of our common existence is transformed into the "divisions," the "negativities," the "partisanship" and the "class warfare" that become the projected shadows on the wall of our own sunless caves.