Judging Politicians.

Today's New York Times featured a profile of Congressman Paul Ryan, in which the author, Matt Bai, dismissed questions about the substance of Ryan's vaunted budget road map, saying, "The more pertinent question is whether Mr. Ryan is the kind of guy who just wants to make a point — or whether his road map represents the starting point in what could be a serious negotiation about entitlements and spending." Paul Krugman, who has been extremely critical of Ryan's plan, gets frustrated:

That's completely wrong-headed. My experience — very much based on Bush 2000 — is that a politician's policy proposals offer the best clue to what "kind of guy" he is. Back then, all the professional political reporters were hanging out with W and reporting what a swell guy he was, while I was looking at the flimflam in his tax and Social Security plans, and reaching the conclusion that he was a scammer. Who was right?

This points to a couple of long-standing gripes I've had with political reporting. Just as reporters pretend to value "authenticity," when what they actually reward is a convincing portrayal of the authentic (see, for instance, George W. Bush's "ranch"), they pretend to care about "issues" and "ideas," when what they actually reward is not politicians who understand issues and have good ideas, but politicians who make a good show of pretending to have ideas, like Newt Gingrich (you'll notice that Gingrich supposedly has had hundreds of "revolutionary" policy ideas, none of which has ever been enacted, let alone revolutionized anything).

Perhaps the most curious manifestation of this tendency, combined with the obsession with "character," is that politicians are allowed to say pretty much anything they want about their policies, no matter how dishonest, without reporters ever saying, "Hey, this guy's lying over and over again about his policy proposals. What does that say about him? Is it possible he's, you know, a liar?" But if that same politician should claim to have been first in his high school class, when he was actually third, the reporters will immediately say it "raises questions" about just what kind of guy he is.

So if we're interested in determining whether Paul Ryan is a serious and substantive guy, a charlatan, or something in between, "the more pertinent question" ought to be what's in his signature policy effort.

-- Paul Waldman

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