In terms of practical politics and ideological theory, the first "Great American Debate"
,moderated by Christiane Amanpour and held Sunday in the "This Week" time slot, was singularly useful in defining the likely terms of the election next year. On paper, at least, it is hard to imagine two Republicans with better intellectual reputations in the party than George Will and Paul Ryan to challenge the Democratic team of Robert Reich and Barney Frank. What should be clear to any who saw it, however, is that the Republican perspective articulated in the debate was surprisingly sophomoric. Paul's opening statement, for example, that there is "too much government in our lives" and that we should retrieve the "founding timeless principles" was offered in the context of a clip that ABC used to set the stage for the debate, which noted that Thomas Jefferson had advocated for individual independence and Alexander Hamilton for central organization -- setting up a tension in American government which exists to this day. Ryan, understandably, did not acknowledge that his "founding timeless principles" included at least one that he had no intention of retrieving.
For his part, Barney Frank commented in his opening that government has to address individual and collective needs, pointing out, as one of many examples, that environmental issues affect all indiscriminately, adding, "No matter how rich you are, you can't get your own air to breathe." The need to reconcile personal with public concerns was the theme throughout the debate, with constant efforts by the two Democrats to get their opponents to acknowledge that the military, the environment, civil liberties, education, public safety, infrastructure, etc. were collective concerns that are an appropriate and necessary focus of government.
In the main, the Republican team responded by saying that such public concerns were minimal and that we simply couldn't afford the expenses projected for, say, health care and social security. Ryan, predictably, imaged himself and his party as fiscally-responsible adults in a world of profligate-spending Democrats. Absent from his argument, of course, was any hint that public, as opposed to private, concerns are ultimately important. Unbelievably, the fiscal maturity of his party would simply transfer the ethical and moral responsibility of government to the good graces of capitalistic enterprise, ignoring the reality that that is, in fact, exactly what we have done -- with disastrous consequences. The growing "occupy" movement in America vividly demonstrates public awareness of the inevitable deterioration of social order that results from this practice. Reich had it just right as he summed up the debate, thanking the Republican team for "trying to defend the indefensible."
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