In fact, with the possible exception of anti-tax activist/Bond villain Grover Norquist, nobody has done more in recent years to prevent the passage of a bipartisan debt agreement than Paul Ryan. And yet, incredibly, Ryan has managed to position himself as the nation’s foremost spokesman for the cause of bipartisan deficit reduction. Possibly his favorite accusation against Obama, one he repeats day after day, is that he failed to openly endorse the Bowles-Simpson plan. Thus Ryan regularly holds forth on this subject in a way that seems genuine and even admirable to his audiences but, to anybody who happens to recall his actual role in these events, utterly surreal:
RYAN: President Obama, through an executive order, created his own commission to solve this plan.
Q: You were on it.
RYAN: I was on the commission. And you know what he did? He didn’t accept—he didn’t take one of the big recommendations of the commission, he basically disavowed the commission. And now, after the commission said we have an economic ruin on our hands, he put out a budget that Erskine Bowles, the Democrat-appointed chairman of the commission, says doesn’t go anywhere near where we have to go to solve our fiscal nightmare.
Q: So, do you think the commission was worth having?
RYAN: I thought it was great worth having [sic]. I thought it advanced an adult conversation that we needed to have. But the president just took us a few steps backward by ignoring the commission’s findings, by ignoring its conclusions.
How has Ryan managed to occupy these two roles in our national life—Fiscy award-winning spokesman for those Americans demanding a bipartisan agreement to reduce the deficit, and slayer of bipartisan deficit agreements—simultaneously? Here is where, in the place of any credible programmatic commitment, he substitutes his remarkable talent for radiating good intentions. New York Times business columnist James Stewart, for instance, recently opined that Ryan’s plan would usher in an overhaul of the tax code that would raise taxes on the rich, by eliminating special treatment for capital-gains income.
It is certainly true, as Stewart argues, that one could reduce tax rates to the levels advocated by Ryan without shifting the burden onto the poor and middle class if you eliminated the lower rate enjoyed by capital-gains income. But Ryan has been crystal clear throughout his career in his opposition to raising capital-gains taxes. An earlier, more explicit version of his tax plan eliminated any tax at all on capital gains. The current version, while refraining from specifics, insists, “Raising taxes on capital is another idea that purports to affect the wealthy but actually hurts all participants in the economy.” I asked Stewart why he believed so strongly that Ryan actually supported such a reform, despite the explicit opposition of his budget. “Maybe he’s being boxed in” by right-wing colleagues, Stewart suggested.
After Obama assailed Ryan’s budget, Stewart wrote a second column insisting that Ryan’s plans were just the sort of goals liberals shared. He quoted Ryan as writing, in his manifesto, “The social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens.” Stewart is flabbergasted that Democrats could be so partisan as to attack a figure who believes something so uncontroversial. “Does anyone,” Stewart wrote in his follow-up, “Democrat or Republican, seriously disagree?”
The disagreement, I suggested to Stewart, is that Ryan believes the social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens by spending too much money on them. As Ryan has said, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”—which is to say, plying the poor with such inducements as food stamps and health insurance for their children has sapped their desire to achieve, a problem Ryan proposes to solve by targeting them for the lion’s share of deficit reduction. Stewart waves away the distinction. “I was pointing out that, at least rhetorically, you can find some common ground,” he says. Stewart, explaining his evaluation of Ryan to me, repeatedly cited the missing details in his plan as a hopeful sign of Ryan’s accommodating aims. “He seems very straightforward,” he tells me. “He doesn’t seem cunning. He seems very genuine.”
Seeming genuine is something Ryan does extraordinarily well. And here is where something deeper is at play, more than Ryan’s charm and winning personality, something that gets at the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary Washington. The Ryan brand is rooted in his ostentatious wonkery. Because, unlike the Bushes and the Palins, he grounds his position in facts and figures, he seems like an encouraging candidate to strike a bargain. But the thing to keep in mind about Ryan is that he was trained in the world of Washington Republican think tanks. These were created out of a belief that mainstream economists were hopelessly biased to the left, and crafted an alternative intellectual ecosystem in which conservative beliefs—the planet is not getting warmer, the economy is not growing more unequal—can flourish, undisturbed by skepticism. Ryan is intimately versed in the blend of fact, pseudo-fact, and pure imagination inhabiting this realm.