A week ago, Paul Ryan’s political assets included — alongside his chiseled torso, plainspoken Midwestern demeanor, and the unshakable loyalty of the entire Republican Party — a firm reputation for honesty among the mainstream media. That reputation has suffered a massive, swift erosion. News stories about his speech at the Republican National Convention focused on its many rhetorical sleights of hand. Over the weekend, the revelation that he dramatically misstated a marathon time added a crucial, accessible piece of evidence to the indictment. Now liberals are calling him “Lyin’ Ryan” — a nickname that, a few weeks ago, would have seemed silly, like “Wimpy Palin.” Now mainstream pundits are defending Ryan with versions of the “well, all politicians fib” defense. Given that this constituency was once portraying Ryan as unusually honest, this represents a huge retreat for his political brand.
Here’s what has not happened: Paul Ryan did not begin telling an unprecedented series of lies that suddenly exposed a predilection for shading the truth. His marathon boast is certainly odd and may well be a deliberate lie, but it could also be a simple failure to recall. The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson, arguing for the prosecution, contends that “for someone who does run seriously,” missing a marathon time by as a vast a level as Ryan does is nearly impossible. On the other hand, given that the race occurred in 1990 and was Ryan’s only marathon, perhaps the explanation is that Ryan just isn’t a serious runner.
And Ryan’s Tampa speech, while pretty dishonest, was not especially so by Ryan’s standards. Here you can see why Ryan must view the sudden attack of the truth squad so bewilderingly. Ryan has been saying things like this, and worse, all along. The bit where he sadly shakes his head and blames President Obama for the failure of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission that Ryan killed himself has been a staple of the Ryan shtick for two years. Reporters usually bat their eyes and coo sympathetically. Now it has become evidence of his duplicity .
Ryan seems to have fallen victim to circumstances he didn’t quite foresee. The Romney campaign has spent the last several weeks practically daring the national press corps to call out its lies. Well beyond the usual exaggerations of a national campaign, Romney has built its entire message around two accusations — “you didn’t build that” and “just send them a check” — that are obviously false. A day before Ryan’s speech, a Romney adviser told reporters, “We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” The media that had spent the last two and a half years nuzzling gently in Ryan’s lap had been prodded with sharp sticks and reacted in the predictable fashion, though probably not predictable to Ryan himself.
The thing about Ryan is that he has always resided in a counter-factual universe. He is a product of the hermetically sealed right-wing subculture. Many of the facts taken for granted by mainstream economists have never penetrated his brain. Ryan burst onto the national scene with a dense, fact-laden attack on the financing of Obama’s health-care bill that was essentially a series of hallucinations, pseudo-facts cooked up and recirculated by conservative apparatchiks who didn’t know what they were talking about or didn’t care. His big-think speeches reflect the influence of fact-free conservatives and collapse under scrutiny.
During the last couple of years, Ryan took his act to the big city, expanding beyond his Washington conservative movement base and pitching himself to a broader audience as a straight-talking avatar of fiscal responsibility. That he managed to pull off the feat was completely incredible. Ryan’s entire career had been rooted in the “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter” wing of his party, and he spent the Bush administration consistently pushing for even more fiscally irresponsible policies than even George W. Bush could bear, and then spent the Obama administration relentlessly killing any effort to ameliorate those deficits. The genuine Paul Ryan is a man deeply devoted to reducing tax rates for Job Creators, and staunchly opposed to universal health insurance and other social spending. He is not a deficit hawk. The tension between Ryan’s policy goals and the persona he crafted was strained to the breaking point. When the press corps finally applied even the slightest pressure to it, it immediately and inevitably snapped.