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Kissing Your Way to the Top: The Paul Ryan Story

He’s the GOP’s Chosen One, but is he leading the party over a cliff?

Theo Anderson

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference after a House Republican Conference meeting on July 18 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The conservative Weekly Standard crowned a new king of the GOP this week.

There’s a reason that Ryan’s high-school classmates voted him the “biggest brown-noser” in 1988. Living by principles means making hard choices. Ryan has built his career by consistently avoiding them.

The party’s presidential nominee is of course Mitt Romney, but Paul Ryan, the seven-term Representative from Wisconsin’s First District, is the party’s Chosen One. In an adoring profile, Stephen Hayes portrays Ryan as a man who has tirelessly chased a dream that seemed naïve, maybe impossible before he started.” But now Ryan’s dream is Republican orthodoxy, and he’s become the GOP’s intellectual leader.”

Ryan is in the spotlight now because he’s likely on Romney’s short list of VP running mates. Earlier this month, Jeffrey Anderson argued in the National Review that Ryan has been the GOP’s de facto leader” for most of Barack Obama’s term, and that a Romney-Ryan ticket would make a formidable team. His budgets,” Anderson wrote, have arguably been the boldest and most forceful shows of political leadership from the GOP since the Reagan administration.”

But conservatives were in love with Ryan long before he became a serious contender for the VP slot. Last year, Paul Rahe, a historian at the ultra-conservative Hillsdale College, observed that we face a grave crisis,” and only a man of extraordinary ability can meet the challenge. 

Ryan has attained a stature that no Congressman in my lifetime has achieved,” Rahe wrote. When I cast my mind back in search of comparable figures, I can come up with only two — James Madison in the First Federal Congress, and Henry Clay, when he was Speaker of the House. There were no doubt others, but the list is not long, and I doubt whether there would be anyone on it who served in the last hundred years.”

So what moves conservatives to write such breathless valentines to Ryan?

They love him for VP because he might tilt Wisconsin in Romney’s favor, and because he’s presumably well-vetted, having been through several Congressional campaigns. There’s also a possibility that Ryan, who is 42 and seems even younger, would cut into Obama’s big lead among young voters.

More generally, conservatives love Ryan because they believe he’s a man of principle: a man whose life is guided by his commitment to certain beliefs.

When Ryan says, as he did in a recent television interview, that the next few years are going to be make it or break it for America,” he’s talking about the same grave crisis” that Rahe fears — a crisis of encroaching socialism and out-of-control spending. Only Ryan has had the courage to face this crisis, the mythmakers say. His life’s mission has been to find solutions that will save the nation. Ryan has never been a title-chaser,” as Hayes wrote in his Weekly Standard piece. He’s a guileless, straightforward man who wants to advance the ideas he believes in.”

That’s a nice story. It certainly must be flattering to Ryan. But it’s complete fiction.

There’s a reason that Ryan’s high-school classmates voted him the biggest brown-noser” in 1988. Living by principles means making hard choices. Ryan has built his career by consistently avoiding them.

It’s more precise to say that Ryan has commitments that pull him in opposing directions, and when forced to choose between them, he always chooses the path that will increase his power. Kissing up to the GOP’s kingmakers and brown-nosing the party’s base are the principles he lives by. 

Consider his budget plan, which he dubs the Path to Prosperity,” and which he’s been tinkering with for several years now. The buzz surrounding the plan is responsible for Ryan’s rapid rise within the GOP, and it will provide the party’s talking points in upcoming battles with Democrats over budget priorities. In theory, it’s aimed at addressing the problem of deficit spending.

How curious, then, that the heart of the plan isn’t deficit reduction — it’s tax cuts, primarily for the wealthy. According to an analysis done by the Tax Policy Center and reported by Forbes, in 2015, relative to today’s tax system, those making $1 million or more would enjoy an average tax cut of $265,000 and see their after-tax income increase by 12.5 percent. By contrast, half of those making between $20,000 and $30,000 would get no tax cut at all.” People making between $50,000 and $75,000 would see their after-tax income rise by about two percent.

When he’s confronted with opportunities to support deficit reduction in actual practice, rather than theory, Ryan consistently votes for sizable spending increases — for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for Medicare Part D, for the TARP bailout of banks and for the stimulus package of 2008.

Consider, too, Ryan’s religion. There is a revered social-justice tradition within Catholicism, and Catholic reformers were fundamental to the creation of the social safety net in the U.S. In a publication designed to help Catholic voters make wise decisions about candidates for office, even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, now dominated by conservatives, nods to this tradition. The bishops write that voters should be sensitive to the effects of an economic crisis which has devastated lives and livelihoods, increasing national and global unemployment, poverty, and hunger.”

For Ryan, that kind of sensitivity to reality just fosters what he calls a culture of dependency.” His account of recent American history reads like a fairy tale dreamed up by Ronald Reagan. Until recently,” Ryan writes, Americans were known and admired everywhere for their hopeful determination to assume responsibility for the quality of their own lives; to rely on their own work and initiative; and to improve opportunities for their children to prosper in the future. But over time, Americans have been lured into viewing government — more than themselves, their families, their communities, their faith — as their main source of support.”

For the intellectual leader” of a political party, that’s an awfully shallow engagement with the teachings of his faith tradition. It couldn’t be that Ryan is just telling Republicans what they like to hear, could it?

In the Weekly Standard piece, Stephen Hayes quotes Ryan as saying that he doesn’t want to be a career politician, though he has in fact been a politician most of his adult life. His wish could be fulfilled if his Democratic challenger this fall, Rob Zerban, is able to educate voters about the actual details of Ryan’s budget plan. A poll taken in December showed that the more details they learn about it, the less they like it. Zerban trailed Ryan by just six points after poll voters were given a brief exposition” of the Ryan budget.

In his profile, Hayes dismissed Zerban as the Democrat who will lose to Ryan in November.” That level of cockiness and condescension must be tempting, given that Ryan has won the district with more than 60 percent of the vote in five straight elections. But it’s also misguided. Zerban has a more interesting life story to tell than Ryan: he trained as a chef and ran two small businesses before devoting himself to public service in 2008. And Ryan, as the newly crowned king of an increasingly extremist party, could be vulnerable in a district that is distinctly middle-of-the-road.

There are limits, in other words, to how far even the biggest of brown-nosers can go. The contradictions pile up. At some point, you can’t please this voting bloc without alienating that one. So Paul Ryan is king of the GOP — at least for a day. But can he keep on winning the hearts and minds of his district by running on tax cuts for the wealthy? More broadly, will the king’s faithful servant, Mitt Romney, be able to sell the American people on Ryan’s plan?

We’re about to find out.

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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