The Paul Ryan Legend Dissipates

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Before we discuss our tax plan, I would like to point out that my eyes are extremely blue.

Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate is subjecting him to all manner of strange new indignities, such as questions about public policy that are different than those that his own press staff would have written. The Washington Post reported this weekend that Ryan has opposed bipartisan compromises to reduce the budget deficit. The facts in the story aren’t new. (If anything, they understate the active, crucial role Ryan has played in killing these deals.) What’s new is that the publicly available facts about Ryan’s opposition to bipartisan deficit reduction is penetrating the media narrative about him, which has always presented him as the very opposite.

And then there was Ryan’s surreal interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News:

Wallace is trying to do something that Ryan is not used to: ask him how the numbers in his plan add up. The Romney tax plan is premised on a mathematical impossibility. It promises to reduce tax rates by 20 percent and cover the lost revenue by eliminating tax deductions, exempting tax breaks for investment income. Even making a series of assumptions ranging from friendly to impossibly friendly, it can’t add up. The lost revenue from the tax rate cuts on income over $250,000 exceeds the available revenue from eliminating deductions. Even Republican attempts to disprove this finding have inadvertently confirmed it.

In the interview, Wallace tries to walk through the facts with Ryan. He begins by asking about the cost of the rate cuts, which is about $5 trillion over a decade. Ryan refuses to answer the question. He tries various tricks to avoid it. First he pretends Wallace is asking a different question — that he’s asking about the net cost of the entire plan, rather than the gross cost of the rate cuts. He cracks jokes about the unreliability of statistics. He filibusters by making a speech about economic growth.

Wallace asks the question seven times, and Ryan fills one minute and 48 seconds avoiding it. Finally, the final time Wallace asks Ryan to give him the math, Ryan asserts, “It would take me too long to go through all the math.” There was plenty of time if he hadn’t spent two minutes dodging the question! In any case, the math doesn’t take a long time to explain, but Ryan doesn’t want to explain it, because it would reveal unavoidable and unpopular trade-offs in the campaign’s tax plan that he’d rather conceal.

A person who thinks highly of Ryan, or who notes the sudden souring of his media coverage, might suspect that the problem lies in the fact that he is now defending Romney’s plan rather than his own. But that is not the case. Ryan’s plan is worse. His would cut tax rates lower than Romney’s (the Ryan budget would reduce the top tax rate to 25 percent, against the 28 percent Romney proposes) and rather than hold rates on investment income constant, he would eliminate all taxes on investment income. Taxes are one of the many black holes in the Ryan budget. He asked the Congressional Budget to score his plan as if it held revenue at a constant level, and the CBO basically said, “well, okay, if you say so,” but Ryan never comes close to saying how he would fill in the trillions of dollars of missing revenue that would require.

And nobody has ever asked him. Because Ryan’s role in the budget discourse was not to be questioned, but to question others. If he was asked to comment, it was to express his sadness over Obama’s alleged unwillingness to enact the bipartisan debt plans that Ryan in fact killed.

Ryan is still an extremely skilled bullshitter — vastly better at it than Romney. But he’s actually seeing, for the first time, questions that attempt to pry information out of him, rather than the batting practice lobs to which he’s accustomed. He’s going to emerge from the race with his legend punctured.

Update: Ryan explains his strategy to a talk radio host, "When you're offering very specific, bold solutions, confusion can be your enemy's best weapon." In other words, when you're specific and bold, your enemy will try to trap you into being specific. Don't let them!