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.
As the election takes the form of a great battle over Ryan’s plan, the fight will center on what we’re actually talking about. Obama wants to argue over the Paul Ryan plan itself, a set of policy proposals that would rewrite the nature of the American social compact. But the only way to do so will be to dislodge it from “Paul Ryan”—the courageous, reasonable, modest neighborhood accountant. It won’t be easy.
One trope that has marked Ryan’s media coverage from the outset is that he is consistently described as lacking ambition. It’s a sharp contrast with fellow Republican Eric Cantor, to whom the adjective “ambitious” is affixed like a tattoo. Ryan says, and many political reporters believe, that he is immune to the political concerns that distract his colleagues. He “has a level of disdain for the sort of rank political calculations required of people who want to climb the electoral ladder,” explains the Washington Post. Here is a telling description from Politico: “Of the partisan political game, Ryan confessed, ‘It’s not my natural tendency. I’m a policy guy.’ ” The operative word here is “confessed.”
Ryan worked his way up through the Republican Party from the inside. Born into a prominent family in Janesville, Wisconsin, he studied political science and economics at Miami University in Ohio, and set out for Washington. His first job was at Empower America, a think tank housing several veterans of the just-deposed George H. W. Bush administration, including Jack Kemp, for whom Ryan worked as a speechwriter. From there Ryan found a job as a Republican staffer in Congress. In 1998, at the tender age of 28, and with the help of his Washington connections, he won a seat in the House.
With his good looks and base of insider knowledge, Ryan was marked from the outset as a comer. He had to elbow more experienced Republicans out of the way to grab his nomination, and then leapfrog other more experienced Republicans to claim the party’s leadership of the House Budget Committee in 2007. And yet the narrative of Ryan’s career centers around ambitions others have on his behalf—always urging him to jump to the next level, while he modestly demurs. He would not challenge John Boehner for House minority leader, he said in 2008, but was “humbled by the outpouring of support.” (Given the titanic power he has amassed at the mere age of 42, one can only wonder what heights Ryan would have climbed if he actually cared about political gain.)
Ryan won a prime speaking place at the 2004 Republican National Convention, but he began distancing himself from the Bush administration soon thereafter, joining a chorus of conservatives who, by 2006, had begun bemoaning Bush’s alleged abandonment of true conservatism. Two weeks before the 2008 election, he openly sniped at the tactics of the McCain campaign. On Election Night, he gave a long interview on Fox News with Brit Hume, who introduced Ryan as an up-and-coming Republican leader. Ryan told the dismayed audience that “the Republican Party has to go back to its roots.” Three days later, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial, “Ryan for the Republicans,” urging the party to embrace Ryan’s vision and to elevate him over John Boehner as party leader in the House.
The single moment that firmly established Ryan’s control over the GOP came in February 2010. Obama, reeling from Scott Brown’s victory in a special election that threatened to halt health-care reform, convened a free-floating health-care discussion at the Blair House with leaders from both parties. Republicans feared it was a trap to make them look closed-minded but didn’t dare boycott the proceedings. They tapped Ryan as their debate leader, and, politely but aggressively, he launched a detailed attack on Obama’s bill, describing it as a kind of accounting fraud. Conservatives were ecstatic at the spectacle.
With his newfound status as Wonk King of the Republicans, Ryan set about persuading his party members to adopt his sweeping manifesto, “The Path to Prosperity.” The House Republican caucus voted almost unanimously for the plan despite knowing full well Obama would veto it. It was an impressive and, given the unpopularity of many of its provisions, almost sadomasochistic display of party unity and ideological fervor. The calculation was that if Republicans could withstand blowback from voters and hold the House in 2012, and win the presidency and Senate too, there could be no question but that they would quickly implement Ryan’s plan. This is how a congressman not even in his party’s leadership had determined the domestic agenda of the next Republican president long before voters had decided who that person would be.
The basic elements of Ryan’s plan are this: The tax code would be collapsed into two rates, with the top rate dropping to 25 percent, but eliminating unspecified tax deductions would keep tax revenues at the current level, as set by the Bush tax cuts. Medicare would remain untouched for those 55 years old and older, but those under would be given vouchers at a capped rate. Given that the Medicare savings would not begin to take effect for more than a decade, that taxes would stay level (at best), and that military spending would increase, Ryan would achieve his short-term deficit reduction by focusing overwhelmingly on programs targeted to the poor (which account for about a fifth of the federal budget, but absorb 62 percent of Ryan’s cuts over the next decade). The budget repeals Obamacare, thereby uninsuring some 30 million Americans about to become insured. It would then take insurance away from another 14 to 27 million people, by cutting Medicaid and children’s health-insurance funding.
This is not a moderate plan. As Robert Greenstein, a liberal budget analyst, summed up the proposal, “It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history.” And yet, Ryan has managed to sell it as something admirable, and something else entirely: a deficit-reduction plan. This is very clever. The centrist political Establishment, heavily represented among business leaders and the political media, considers it almost self-evident that the budget deficit (and not, say, mass unemployment or climate change) represents the singular policy threat of our time, and that bipartisan cooperation offers the sole avenue to address it. By casting his program as a solution to the debt crisis, by frequently conceding that Republicans as well as Democrats had failed in the past, and by inveighing against “demagoguery,” Ryan has presented himself as the acceptable Republican suitor the moderates had been longing for.
Whether Ryan’s plan even is a “deficit-reduction plan” is highly debatable. Ryan promises to eliminate trillions of dollars’ worth of tax deductions, but won’t identify which ones. He proposes to sharply reduce government spending that isn’t defense, Medicare (for the next decade, anyway), or Social Security, but much of that reduction is unspecified, and when Obama named some possible casualties, Ryan complained that those hypotheticals weren’t necessarily in his plan. Ryan is specific about two policies: massive cuts to income-tax rates, and very large cuts to government programs that aid the poor and medically vulnerable. You could call all this a “deficit-reduction plan,” but it would be more accurate to call it “a plan to cut tax rates and spending on the poor and sick.” Aside from a handful of exasperated commentators, like Paul Krugman, nobody does.
The persistent belief in the existence of an authentic, deficit hawk Ryan not only sweeps aside the ugly particulars of his agenda, it also ignores, well, pretty much everything he has done in his entire career, and pretty much everything he has said until about two years ago.
In 2005, Ryan spoke at a gathering of Ayn Rand enthusiasts, where he declared, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” Ryan has listed Rand’s manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, as one of his three most often reread books, and in 2003, he told The Weekly Standard he tries to make his interns read it. Rand is a useful touchstone to understand Ryan’s public philosophy. She centered libertarian philosophy around a defense of capitalism in general and, in particular, a conception of politics as a class war pitting virtuous producers against parasites who illegitimately use the power of the state to seize their wealth. Ludwig von Mises, whom Ryan has also cited as an influence, once summed up Rand’s philosophy in a letter to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: You are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”
Ryan now frequently casts his opposition to Obama in technocratic terms, but he hasn’t always done so. “It is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big or the health-care plan doesn’t work for this or that policy reason,” Ryan said in 2009. “It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack, and it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on.” Ryan’s philosophical opposition to a government that forces the “makers” to subsidize the “takers”—terms he still employs—is foundational; the policy details are secondary.
This recently became a political problem when Catholic bishops denounced his budget, with one singling out “his favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand.” Last week, Ryan told National Review that he is not an Objectivist, which of course he is not. Objectivists adhere to the full spectrum of Rand’s eclectic beliefs. (Ryan: “I reject her philosophy. It is an atheist philosophy.”) But the thrust of the liberal Catholic critique didn’t center on Rand’s atheism. Where Rand has gained a following among mainstream conservatives like Ryan is her vision of capitalism and class.
Like many Rand devotees, Ryan gravitated to the supply-side-economics wing of the Republican Party, which furnished an economic rationale for policies to which they were already morally sympathetic. The supply-siders remade the Republican Party, replacing its traditional emphasis on balanced budgets with a relentless obsession with cutting tax rates, especially for the most affluent. Reducing taxes, they believed, could unleash untold prosperity; some, like Ryan’s mentor Jack Kemp, even considered spending constraints utterly unnecessary. “I learned economics working for Jack Kemp,” Ryan said in 1999.
Ryan has, retroactively, depicted himself as a dissenter from the fiscal profligacy of the Bush administration, and reporters have mostly accepted his account at face value. (“Ryan watched his party’s leadership inflate the deficit by cutting tax rates like Kemp conservatives while spending like Kardashians,” wrote Time last year.) In reality, Ryan was a staunch ally in Bush’s profligacy, dissenting only to urge Bush to jack up the deficit even more.
“We noticed that the green-eyeshade, austerity wing of the party was afraid of class warfare,” Ryan said during Bush’s first term. “They fear increases in the debt, and they were overlooking issues of growth, opportunity, and free markets.” For those uninitiated in the tribal lingo of Beltway conservatives, this may sound like gibberish. But those inside the conservative subculture invest these buzzwords with deep meaning. “Green eyeshade” is a term of abuse appropriated by the supply-siders to describe Republicans who still cared more about deficit control than cutting taxes. “Growth” and “opportunity” mean tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich, and “class warfare” means any criticism thereof. Ryan’s centrist admirers hear his frequent confessions that both parties have failed as an ideological concession. What he means is that Republicans were insufficiently fanatical in their devotion to cutting taxes for the rich.
In 2001, Ryan led a coterie of conservatives who complained that George W. Bush’s $1.2 trillion tax cut was too small, and too focused on the middle class. In 2003, he lobbied Republicans to pass Bush’s deficit-financed prescription-drug benefit, which bestowed huge profits on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. In 2005, when Bush campaigned to introduce private accounts into Social Security, Ryan fervently crusaded for the concept. He was the sponsor in the House of a bill to create new private accounts funded entirely by borrowing, with no benefit cuts. Ryan’s plan was so staggeringly profligate, entailing more than $2 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, that even the Bush administration opposed it as “irresponsible.”
When Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 elections, they reimposed a budget rule requiring that any new spending or tax cuts be offset by new revenue or spending cuts. Ryan opposed it, preferring to let new spending or tax cuts go on the national credit card. Instead, he continued to endorse Bush’s line that tax cuts were leading us to a glorious new era of prosperity and budget balance. “Higher revenues flowing into the Treasury, as a result of economic and job growth, have given us a real chance to balance the budget,” Ryan announced in 2007. “The president’s budget achieves the important goal of balancing the budget in the near term—without raising taxes,” he wrote in August 2008.
Since Obama took office, Ryan has changed his position on the value of economic stimulus. In 2001, and again in February 2008, he (along with nearly everybody in both parties) endorsed temporary tax cuts in the face of economic downturns. He has since embraced hoary, previously obscure Austrian economic doctrines that warn against putting too much money back in the pockets of citizens suffering through a recession.
Yet Ryan has not altered his opposition to green-eyeshade fiscal conservatism. In 2010, Ryan was a member of a bipartisan committee, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, to formulate a plan to reduce the deficit, but voted against it. (The plan included a tax increase.) Last year, another, informal bipartisan collection of senators released an agreement for a wide-ranging plan to reduce the deficit, combining lower spending with a tax-reform plan designed to increase revenue. It seemed to be gaining momentum quickly until Ryan attacked it, thus dropping what a Republican Senate aide called a “bomb” that blew apart Republican support for the plan.
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.
For instance, he consistently describes Obama’s plan to control health-care costs as “a panel of unelected bureaucrats” making unaccountable decisions. In fact, Obamacare involves a wide array of incentives and reforms; health-care-cost inflation has already slowed, and an important article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested Obamacare’s reforms deserve some credit. Ryan shows no sign of grappling with these facts or even acknowledging they exist. Likewise, at his star turn at Blair House, where he assailed the allegedly phony numbers in Obamacare, Ryan held up as his most damning piece of evidence the fact that the bill used something called “the doc fix” for its savings. Ryan was confused (or else making things up). He was referring to a payment glitch from a 1997 Republican-authored Medicare law, one that had no relation to any of the cost savings in Obamacare.
Ryan’s mastery of these details does not signify openness to evidence or a willingness to shape his views to real-world evidence. It actually signifies the opposite. And yet Ryan has grasped that the aura of specificity he has cultivated paradoxically renders the specifics themselves irrelevant.
For a virtuoso display of this principle in action, return to another vintage Ryan moment: his Dave profile from last year, where he awed a swooning reporter by opening up the budget to a random page and fingered a boondoggle. The item Ryan pointed to was the Obama administration’s reform of the student-loan industry. “Direct loans—this is perfect,” Ryan said. “So direct loans, that’s new spending on autopilot, that had no congressional oversight, and it gave the illusion that they were cutting spending.”
The exchange is so perversely revealing that it rewards explanation. For decades, the government helped make college more affordable through “guaranteed loans”—it encouraged banks to lend money to students by promising to repay the banks if the students defaulted. Banks were making billions of dollars in profits at virtually no risk. The General Accounting Office, a kind of in-house fiscal watchdog for the federal government, issued sixteen reports over the years noting how the government could save money simply by issuing the loans itself and cutting out the middleman.
It was the simplest, no-brainer pot of savings you could find—ending pure corporate welfare, just like in the movie Dave. The cause attracted support from think tanks, as well as the moderate Wisconsin Republican Tom Petri, an eclectic reformer who is sort of the real-life version of the Paul Ryan character who appears on television. Two National Review editors endorsed eliminating guaranteed loans in an article advocating a new reform conservatism.
The banks lobbied fiercely to protect their gravy train. Among the staunchest advocates of those government-subsidized banks was … Paul Ryan, who fought to protect bank subsidies that many of his fellow Republicans deemed too outrageous to defend. In 2009, Obama finally eliminated the guaranteed-lending racket. It could save the government an estimated $62 billion, according to the CBO.
Not everything in Ryan’s career, and possibly nothing at all, is quite so undeniably venal. You could pluck any other single example out of Ryan’s long history of strident conservatism and he would be able to defend it, at the very least, on ideological grounds. A tax cut for the rich, a hike in military spending—all those could be explained as a blow for the cause of Reaganism. This was an almost astonishingly unlucky break, an instance where he lacked even ideological cover—standing up for higher spending at the behest of a powerful lobby lacking any plausible rationale for its subsidy.
At the moment the page opened to that unfortunate item, Ryan’s heart must have stopped. Here was a reporter trying to cast him as a movie-hero outsider, and he was performing on cue. Yet the book opened to a page that, cruelly, just happened to expose the gap between Ryan’s image and the reality more clearly than anything else possibly could have.
Ryan probably knew, even in that split second, that he stood little chance of exposure. (The overlap between television news reporters and people with a detailed understanding of the federal budget is quite small.) Yet a lesser politician might have panicked, or hesitated, or possibly tried to flip to a different page. In that moment, Ryan revealed the qualities that have propelled him to his current position. As cool as can be, and as winsome as ever, he said, “This is perfect.”