At its core, Paul Ryan’s appeal is simple: He's what stupid people think smart people sound like.
MSNBC's commentary after the vice presidential debate in October captured the narrative pretty well: “It was Scranton Joe vs. Think Tank Ryan. Heart vs. head.” And that reputation has helped Ryan hustle his way from unimpressive legislative aide to brains of the Republican Party in a decade's time.
His popularity among voters isn't much of a surprise. Ryan's good-looking and articulate. Most importantly, he can convince people there's intellectual gravitas behind his words. It’s sort of like the Ross Perot phenomenon, a man for whom 20 million people voted in 1992. Since Perot talked like a dweeb, people assumed he had crafty, intelligent plans for the country. Plus he whipped out bar graphs from time-to-time.
And who doesn't love a good bar graph?
Ryan likes bar graphs, too. Nevermind that his are upside down and backward and layered in shit, like his gross overstating of Medicare's crisis and his quest to privatise the programme. Whatever problems that system has can be solved by expanding the subscriber pool to include the healthy and unhealthy – not by allowing private companies to run the programme for profit, which is essentially Ryan’s plan. A plan that, it should be said, isn’t based in the realities of the program, but in Ryan’s rigid adherence to free-market economic dogma.
But what's more bizarre is Ryan’s popularity among the liberal commentariat, who have helped develop his reputation as a serious thinker worthy of sustained engagement.
Take Ezra Klein, everyone's favourite centre-left Wunderkind. In April 2010, he defended Ryan admirers in a piece called “The virtues of Ryan's roadmap.” Essentially, Klein argued that we needed something more than critique, more than snarking the other bastard's solutions. And he thought the congressman's budget plan was an “honest entry into the debate”, seeing an opening for a bipartisan conversation about the deficit.
Let's hold hands and make those painful cuts together!
A few months later, in August 2010, Klein took to defending Ryan against the slander of that vicious Bolshevik, Paul Krugman. Klein crowed:
I don't think Ryan is a charlatan or a flim-flam artist. More to the point, I think he's playing an important role, and one I'm happy to try and help him play: The worlds of liberals and conservatives are increasingly closed loops. Very few politicians from one side are willing to seriously engage with the other side, particularly on substance.
A three-part interview Klein conducted with Ryan showed the love affair at its most nauseating. He calls Ryan's plan “impressive”, even if he himself, if given the opportunity, “wouldn't balance the budget in anything like the way Ryan proposes”. Sure, Klein is sharp enough to push back and confront the congressman on the details, but he doesn't realise that Ryan’s playing at a different game than him.
Klein wants to tinker with numbers to make Washington run smoother; Ryan wants to use data to obscure a different mission – the complete dismantling of the welfare state.
Klein is the archetype for modern American liberalism, so much so that he disavows being a liberal at all. He’s a centrist technocrat, obsessed over policy, ignoring politics, honestly searching for solutions to the world's problems through the dialectic of an Excel sheet. When he told Alec MacGillis that “At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do,” he was just embodying a new centere-left commonsense: liberals are anti-political.
Beltway liberals today prefer to talk raw facts – meanwhile, moral and ethical appeals to voters are left to conservatives. But as a worshipper of second-rate novelist and third-rate philosopher Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan has a distinctly more ideological project. He realises that policy and politics can't be separated and that an empirical debate about numbers can be put to the service of a prepackaged ideal – in Ryan's case, some sort of libertarian fantasy world of completely free markets and almost free labour.
It's a project completely foreign to “solution-oriented” liberals, quick to find nuance and compromise without seeing how those stances can undermine the continued basis for centre-left politics. After all, if you keep fighting the very people who vote for you, you'll have no one left to support you.
Just look at the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike, which prompted a quick editorial from the New York Times. Called “Chicago Teachers’ Folly,” it claimed that “Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea” and then placed much of the blame for the strike on a “personality clash between the blunt mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis”.
What’s politics and the battle of ideas when we have personalities to dissect?
The Times wasn’t alone. Slate's Matt Yglesias and frequent Klein collaborator Dylan Matthews also tried to find the middle-ground in a conflict between a “blunt” neoliberal Democratic mayor and a “tough” public sector union. Even the Nation’s Melissa Harris-Perry pitied the children stuck “between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost”.
Empirically, the pundits’ dismissal of the CTU, which had widespread support in Chicago, were unjustified and misleading. Wage and benefit issues were never at the centre of the strike. It was a response to a “reform” movement that blamed failing schools solely on bad teachers rather than poverty or other structural issues. The CTU offered a compelling countervision – functioning, well-funded schools with smaller classes and less standardised tests. It was a vision that could’ve been debated on its own terms, but it wasn’t: these “ideas” weren’t discussed by the ostensibly idea-loving commentariat; big-shot blowhards and their egos were.
Nor was it discussed that, today, only 12 percent of the workforce belongs to labour unions. Thirty-seven percent of public employees are unionised, however, compared to just 7 percent in the private sector.
This last bastion of union strength – the public sector – is a core part of the Democratic coalition. And it’s eroding. Cash-strapped local governments have launched an effective bipartisan attack on the salaries, benefits and collective bargaining rights of state employees.
In the context of local competition over resources and general economic downturn, these workers are easy targets. Take Scott Walker's success in Wisconsin, which showed the strength of a middle-class politics built around resentment. His supporters saw union pensions, health benefits and worker protections as special privileges stolen from more productive sectors in the private economy, rather than as the just rewards for hard labour that – the logic once went – everyone deserves.
And yet instead of countering this argument by asserting that public employees also produce goods and services, and should have a say about the conditions under which they work, Beltway liberals like Matt Yglesias drew the ever-so-reasonable conclusion that:
CTU members get what they want, that's not coming out of the pocket of "the bosses" it's coming out of the pocket of the people who work at charter schools or the people who pay taxes in Chicago.
In other words: union members, according to Yglesias, enjoy whatever privileges they’ve earned at the expense of the middle-class taxpayers of Chicago. It’s a subtly nefarious move: Yglesias, the “liberal”, is pitting one largely Democratic group (the CTU) against another (the vast majority of tax payers and charter school employees in Chicago), in a way that right-wingers couldn’t do better themselves.
By comparison, the Republican impulse to close ranks and enforce ideological conformity around litmus tests and shore up their own social base seems awfully sophisticated. Big policy changes, after all, require mobilised and militant political actors.
So when Ezra Klein finally realised, a couple years after his first round of interviews with Ryan, that he was getting wined and dined only to get rushed out the door with a handful for change for the bus the next morning and finally broke down, complaining that Ryan had not actually been as serious and truthful as he first thought, it's hard to have any sympathy.
“Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation,” Klein complained. Republicans weren’t playing fair. They were playing at politics, while he was trying to construct sound policy.
The naivety is breathtaking.