House Budget chairman Paul Ryan inhabits two, mutually exclusive spaces in Washington politics. He’s both a crusader for deficit reduction—the recipient of praise and accolades from the Beltway’s collection of deficit hawks—and a pure right-wing ideologue, whose budgets would gut the social safety net, slash taxes on the rich, and load the United States with trillions of dollars in debt. That he’s managed to do this without backlash from the Right or incredulity from the mainstream is a remarkable achievement, and as Jonathan Chait describes for New York Magazine, a product of his studied earnestness and ostentatious love of “wonkery”:
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.
The thing that comes across in Chait’s piece, more than anything, is the degree to which so many people simply don’t believe that Ryan is a right-wing ideologue. When given a choice between him and their lying eyes, they choose him, despite the fact that his budget would clearly result in a return to the pre-New Deal era, where government was mostly uninvolved in the economic life of the country, to the detriment of everyone.
To wit, Chait relays an interview with New York Times business columnist James Stewart, who assumes that Ryan would raise tax rates on capital gains as part of his budget plan, despite the fact that Ryan has been a vocal opponent of taxes on capital gains. Chait is baffled, and asks him to square the circle:
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.
This is actually a problem for trying to challenge Ryan’s brand of reactionary conservatism; if the arbiters of mainstream discourse refuse to take Ryan on his stated terms—because he talks nice and works out a lot—then the public is necessarily less informed about what the Wisconsin representative wants for the United States. You can see this dynamic at work in today’s Times profile of Ryan, where we learn a lot about his popularity, his exercise regimen, and his love of noodling (catching catfish with your bare hands), and not very much about his plans or their implications.
Ryan’s ideas should discredit him—they are little more than an updated version of the policies that led us to the worst economy since the Depression. But people like to be hooked, and the earnest congressman is a great salesman.