Paul Ryan was the key figure in the Stealthy Extremist section of my recent looong post, "The Four Types of Conservatives." Ryan's radicalism has been dissected very well many times, and in that post, I linked the archives of several writers and outlets that have done so. Their budget analysis is damning, and it speaks volumes about Ryan's (lack of) integrity.
I wanted to link Jonathan Chait's piece "The Legendary Paul Ryan" again, because it's one of the best introductions to Ryan, especially for people who aren't political junkies. I wanted to feature a different section, though:
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.
This dynamic is absolutely maddening – the constant impulse of mainstream media figures to ignore the evidence and anoint even extremists as sensible and responsible. In the terminology of the "four types" post, Paul Ryan is a stealthy extremist, but Stewart is insisting that Ryan is a sober adult. Okay, most of us have been taken in by a politician from time to time. (Although most of us haven't been paid to cover politics, either.) What's most frustrating is that Chait even points out to Stewart that his perception of Ryan is inaccurate – and Stewart replies, “I was pointing out that, at least rhetorically, you can find some common ground,” and that Ryan "seems very genuine.”
This is what sends my blood pressure soaring. Who gives a shit about common ground in rhetoric?!? Politicians lie all the time. They all love America and babies and whatever plays well in the region they're campaigning in that day. It's really not a big challenge to find "common ground" in rhetoric. The question is how much basis Ryan's proposals have in reality. As Greg Sargent likes to say, politics is supposed to be a clash of visions (and his example involves Paul Ryan). If there's no common ground to be found in the actual policies being discussed, and the values underneath them, well then, another speech won't help much – especially if it's bullshit from a charlatan.
One of the benefits of doing at least basic policy analysis – and one of the reasons it's so necessary – is that it helps one evaluate where a political figure is lying, and how badly, and to what consequence. Policy analysis is both a practical matter and a character assessment. Come election-time, voters can pick the candidate that lies less frequently and about less important things, and has higher credibility on delivering the good things and preventing the bad things, and so on. Making such decisions is essential to the whole democracy thing.
In Chait's account, Stewart doesn't care about the reality of Ryan's proposals. He's only valuing appearance. He is only judging by cosmetics. Maybe he's a fine reporter otherwise, and a nice guy in person, but it's appalling... if all too common among mainstream political reporters (the subject of another recent post). Perhaps, like many Americans, Stewart is so desperate to find common ground and get along and see responsible governance that he’ll seize upon any huckster than comes along who says a few nice things. But this is journalistic malpractice, not to mention bad citizenship. Policies should succeed or fail on their merits, and political figures should pay a cost for lying.
For the addled Sensible Centrists that dominate political reporting, "compromise" always seems to entail that liberals should capitulate to the center-left contingent of the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party should always capitulate to the (mostly) far-right Republican Party. (But somehow, the Republican Party is supposed to heed their rabid base, and never move to the left in the name of compromise. Hmm.) Actually, the true solution is exposing bad ideas and calling bullshit. And in that vein, may the accurate examinations of the Romney-Ryan plans continue!
Update: Greg Sargent, Scott Lemieux and Think Progress weigh in. (More updates to come, perhaps.)