Paul Ryan and the Cult of Specificity

You should read Jonathan Chait's entire epic evisceration of the cult of Paul Ryan, which reveals many things. Perhaps the most important is the way Ryan has come to understand how specificity creates the impression of wonkiness, commitment to facts, and seriousness about tackling tough challenges. When a smarmy pol like Eric Cantor tells you he's only concerned about the future of our country, you know he's full of it. But when Ryan tells you the same thing, he throws in a bunch of numbers, and it sounds very different, at least to reporters' ears. The truth, however, is that Ryan is as full of it as anybody. But reporters don't have the time or the inclination to figure out whether he's handing them a steaming pile of crap, so they just go ahead and write stories lionizing this sober, intelligent, and responsible guy who represents the best Republicans have to offer.

Chait's piece ends with a great story about how Ryan hoodwinked a television reporter doing a typically loving story on him, in which he responded to a question about his support of taxpayer subsidies for banks to provide student loans—a boondoggle that was mercifully ended after Barack Obama took office—by deftly portraying it to the gullible reporter as an example of his high-minded probity and commitment to reducing deficits, when in fact it demonstrated exactly the opposite. But you'd have to actually know a little about the issue in question in order to realize what Ryan was doing, and this particular reporter obviously didn't.

I can vividly remember a conversation I had many years ago with a White House reporter for a major newspaper who is now a nationally-syndicated columnist. When I asked her a question about policing these kinds of factual disputes, she said, "Look, I don't know a lot about Medicare, or about the situation in Bosnia. What I know a lot about is politics. So that's what I write about." That sentiment may not be spoken so explicitly very often, but it's commonplace among the Washington press corps. Yes, there are highly knowledgeable reporters who write in-depth stories about budgets and deficits and policy, stories that make most people's eyes glaze over. Paul Ryan isn't concerned about them, because the far more numerous and important political reporters think he's aces. If his "facts" turn out to be a collection of half-truths and deceptions, well, nobody will really notice. Because he sure does have a lot of them, with his numbers and projections and other wonky things that we can't be bothered to look at seriously.

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