Paul Ryan Proves He Doesn’t Care About Publicity by Releasing Publicity Film

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Oh, hello there. I didn't expect you. I was just rewashing these dishes at a homeless shelter.Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/Corbis

The subject of Paul Ryan’s motives has a special fascination for people who admire him, including, and especially, Ryan himself. Favorable media coverage of Ryan, of which a massive amount has been produced, generally places Ryan’s motives at the center. So, for instance, he was introduced to America as a serious policy wonk fixated on finding bipartisan solutions to reduce the budget deficit. His record of proposing measures to increase the deficit, and undercut bipartisan solutions to reduce it, was downplayed or ignored completely. The important evidence was Ryan’s own apparently heartfelt protestations of innocence.

Two years ago, Ryan started a tour of poor and heavily black churches and other institutions. Reports of these visits kept describing it as “quiet.” I expressed some skepticism of the quietude, on the grounds that reports of these trips kept making their way into the hands of friendly reporters. It seemed less like a desire to avoid publicity than an attempt to control it.

Ryan today, via Jon Ward, has another rebuttal to the skeptics. The proof that Ryan’s poverty tour was not a form of spin is that he is releasing a propaganda film about it:

Paul’s critics have complained that these expeditions were part of a politically calculated vanity project designed to soften the GOP’s image and set the congressman — who was the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 — up for a bid for higher office.

But on March 17, Ryan will issue a rejoinder to that accusation in the form of a documentary film on the people he met during his travels to impoverished communities.

So the claim that Ryan was engaged in a publicity gambit is refuted by … the fact that he is releasing a film publicizing it.

I am not following the logic here.

Ward does proceed to point out that Ryan is not running for president. So it is certainly fair to say that Ryan’s poverty trip is not publicity for a presidential campaign (in 2016, anyway). Yet it is possible for a politician not running for president to have political motives. Ryan may believe that the best way to lead his party’s policy agenda is not to run (so that opposing candidates don’t feel compelled to criticize his policies).

Ultimately Ryan’s motives are beside the point. Human motivation is difficult to discern. Even people who act in the crassest self-interest are capable of deluding themselves into believing in their own virtue. Ryan surely believes that he is doing good for the world, precisely because he is an ideologue. What’s so unusual about Ryan is his ability to do things that would be held up as evidence of ambition or political motive by most politicians, but are presented as the opposite when done by him.

But this is also why the primary evidence for analyzing Ryan should not be his own testimony about his motives, nor his visits to bookstores, or other performative gestures in full view of the media, but his actual policy agenda. Ryan has massive influence over his party’s budget. Through a combination of ideological commitments and political constraints, Ryan’s budget proposes to reduce taxes for the rich, increase defense spending, leave retirement benefits for everybody over the age of 55 untouched, and eliminate the budget deficit. This combination requires massive cuts to programs targeted to the poor. Whether Ryan’s plan to impose massive cuts to aid for poor people reflects a contempt for the poor, a belief the poor will be better off with less aid, or simply caring less about the poor than other budgetary priorities is impossible to know.