The implosion of the Newt Gingrich presidential campaign—the first implosion, before the weird resurrection and inevitable second implosion—came because he used four words: right-wing social engineering. He used the phrase, last May, to describe the Republican budget designed by GOP icon Paul Ryan. It was as if he had urinated on Ronald Reagan’s grave. Party leaders rounded on him. In Iowa, an angry voter cornered him and fumed, in a video captured by Fox News that quickly went viral, “What you did to Paul Ryan was unforgivable … You’re an embarrassment.” Gingrich quickly apologized to Ryan, pledged his fealty to the document, and then, lending his confession an extracted-at-NKVD-gunpoint flavor, announced, “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.” It was no use: Despite years of diligent service, his support among Republicans collapsed, his fellow partisans holding him in the low regard ordinarily reserved for liberals.
Ryan’s rise occurred so rapidly that an old hand like Gingrich hadn’t yet fully grasped the fact that he had become unassailable, though most (and, by now, virtually all) of his fellow Republicans had. Ryan’s prestige explains, among other things, the equanimity with which movement conservatives have reluctantly accepted the heresies of Mitt Romney. They may not have an ideal candidate, but they believe Romney could not challenge Ryan even if he so desired.
“Now, we are truly at an inflection point, between the Barack Obama and Paul Ryan approaches to government,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote recently, treating the elevation of the chairman of the House Budget Committee over the presidential nominee as his party’s standard-bearer as so obvious it requires no explanation. “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget,” says anti-tax enforcer Grover Norquist. “Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.” In any case, Romney has shown no inclination to challenge Ryan, praising him fulsomely and even promising him, according to The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, he’d enact Ryan’s plan in the first 100 days. Republicans envision an administration in which Romney has relegated himself to a kind of head-of-state role, at least domestically, with Ryan as the actual head of government.
To find a parallel to the way Ryan has so thoroughly seized control of the Republican agenda and identity, you have to go back at least to Gingrich in his nineties heyday, or possibly to Reagan. Yet Gingrich and Reagan rose to the national scene while cultivating an image as radicals—it was their battle scars, inflicted by the mainstream political Establishment, that lent them the credibility to speak for the conservative base. Ryan, by contrast, has achieved something much stranger: He has ascended to his present position aloft a chorus of acclaim from the corners of the Establishment that once greeted Gingrich and Reagan with loathing. He is the only politician revered as much by the mainstream media as by the tea party. By some measure, he’s the most popular guy in Washington.
The Paul Ryan that has been introduced to America is a figure of cinematic rectitude—a Jimmy Stewart character, but brainier. “Through a combination of hard work, good timing, and possibly suicidal guts,” wrote Time last December, “the Wisconsin Republican managed to harness his party to a dramatic plan for dealing with America’s rapidly rising public debt.” He is America’s neighborhood accountant, a man devoted to the task of restoring our fiscal health, whatever slings and arrows may come his way. Last year, a consortium of nonpartisan anti-deficit groups created a “Fiscy Award” (for “promoting fiscal responsibility and government accountability”) and bestowed one upon Ryan—a laying of hands sanctifying his good standing by the good-government, let’s-all-stop-fighting-and-fix-this crowd.
ABC News actually compared Ryan with Kevin Kline’s character from the 1993 movie Dave—an endearingly naïve Everyman who accidentally finds himself president and does battle with cynical forces to scrub the federal budget of waste. After showing a clip from the film, reporter Jonathan Karl cut to footage of himself in Ryan’s office attempting to re-create the scene. Karl opens a budget tome to a random page and looks on in awe as Ryan explains the dense prose and the savings to be had.
And so here we find a political dilemma for the Democrats. They have decided to make Ryan’s agenda the central issue of the election. There are strong reasons for doing so, namely that most of the policies Ryan champions are disliked by a majority of Americans. But elevating Ryan to right-wing bogeyman—a remake of nineties-era Speaker Gingrich, the man who might personify Republican overreach—has proved difficult. When Obama denounced Ryan’s plan last year, he provoked not just fury from the right but anguished wails from the bipartisan center. Earlier this month, he tried again, assailing the plan as “social Darwinism.” The backlash was even more severe.