The Man Who Wasn’t There
Pundits are turning Paul Ryan from a right-wing ideologue into a bold intellectual – and framing the election in the process.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
One reads of people obsessed with finding Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. These folks may be annoying, but for most of us, they are not really a problem. The same can’t be said of those pundits obsessed with a quest to locate that equally elusive creature, the intellectually honest, public-spirited conservative Republican politician. Combining their wishful delusion with an apparently congenital inability to admit error, these pundits are succeeding in the creation of an entirely fictional narrative about this year’s election.
That obscure object of pundit desire is Paul Ryan. When Ryan released his first budget plan back in early 2010, mainstream media pundits struggled to find words sufficiently praiseworthy to do justice to the man’s courage, wisdom and good looks. At the New York Times, David Brooks wrote that Ryan’s plan “set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion.” Brooks gushed that by “grasp[ing] reality with both hands,” he was “forcing everybody else to do the same.” Soon after, the Times op-ed page cheering squad signed up Joe Nocera and James Stewart, with the latter forced to imagine that Ryan’s plan raised taxes on the rich. And at Slate, Jacob Weisberg was so bowled over by the beauty of Ryan’s “Good Plan!” that he pronounced it “brave, radical, and smart” – even as he admitted it would result in “negative effects… on future retirees, working families and the poor.”
Given these weaknesses, one can only wonder what these pundits found so compelling about the plan. Was it that it shifted the burden of Medicare to future seniors by turning the program into a voucher plan? Was it that it lifted the tax burden from the extremely wealthy while significantly increasing the costs borne by the middle class? Was it the plan’s call for the elimination of taxes on capital gains and dividend income, such that even Mitt Romney admitted it would have wiped out his entire tax burden for the previous two years? Perhaps it was the plan’s attack on the social safety net via cuts and death-blow changes to food stamps and Medicaid.
Judged by the entirety of his career, Ryan is merely a good-looking version of a typical Obama-era Republican. He calls for budgetary discipline while exploding the deficit. He speaks of lowering taxes but merely shifts the burden to the middle class. On social issues, he may as well be Pat Robertson: Ryan co-sponsored a federal “fetal personhood” amendment, voted to defund Planned Parenthood, and offered legislation to prevent Medicaid from funding abortions even in cases of rape or incest.
Yet the punditocracy fantasy version of Ryan persists and has now corrupted the mainstream media’s narrative. The 2012 election may be decided by the punditocracy’s self-delusion and serial dishonesty. It is no exaggeration to say that Paul Ryan’s plan for America, now embraced by Mitt Romney, constitutes a declaration of class warfare by the superwealthy against the rest of us – coupled with an invitation to economic and environmental chaos, and with a side order of political repression and social regression.
Amazingly, what has eluded the smart folks in the punditocracy proved obvious, however briefly, even to someone as nutty as Newt Gingrich. Before being slapped down and forced to recant by the party’s commissars, he observed that Ryan’s plan amounted to “right-wing social engineering” and a Republican attempt to “impos[e] radical change from the right.”
While the pundits reacted with rapture to Romney’s choice of Ryan, a USA Today/Gallup poll found him the least popular Republican vice-presidential nominee since George H.W. Bush’s 1988 selection of Dan Quayle. Clearly, if armed with the truth about the Romney-Ryan plan, voters would mark this ticket “return to sender.”
ERIC ALTERMAN is a professor at City University of New York and a regular columnist for The Nation.