Mitt Romney couldn't have chosen a better example of the fakery at the heart of today's GOP
Paul Ryan was born into a well-to-do Janesville, Wisc. family, part of the so-called “Irish mafia” that’s run the city’s construction industry since the 19th century. When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn’t go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. He went to Miami University of Ohio, paying twice as much tuition as an Ohio resident would have; the in-state University of Wisconsin system (which I attended) apparently wasn’t good enough for Ryan. After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government, where he’s spent his entire career, first serving Republican legislators and then in his own Congressional seat, with occasional stints at his family-owned construction business when he needed a job (reportedly he also drove an Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile for a while).
Ironically, Ryan came to national attention trying to dismantle the very program that helped him go to the college of his choice, pushing an even more radical version of President Bush’s Social Security privatization plan, which failed. He has since become the scourge of the welfare state, a man wholly supported by government who preaches against the evils of government support. He could be the poster boy for President Obama’s supposedly controversial oration about how we all owe our success to some combination of our own hard work, family backing and government support. Let’s say it together: You didn’t build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.
Thus Paul Ryan represents the fakery at the heart of the Republican project today. It starts with the contradiction that Mr. Free Enterprise has spent his life in the bosom of government, enjoying the added protection of wingnut welfare benefactors like the Koch brothers. If Herman Cain is Charles and David Koch’s “brother from another mother,” as he famously joked, Ryan is the fourth Koch, swaddled in support from Americans for Prosperity and other Koch fronts. The man who wants to make the world safe for swashbuckling, risk-taking capitalists hasn’t spent a day at economic risk in his entire life.
The other component of GOP fakery Ryan exemplifies is the notion that a pampered scion of a construction empire who has spent his life supported by government somehow represents the “white working class,” by virtue of the demographics of his gradually gerrymandered blue collar district. I write about this in my book: guys like Ryan (and his Irish Catholic GOP confrere Pat Buchanan) somehow become the political face of the white working class when they never spent a day in that class in their life. Their only tether to it is their remarkable ability to tap into the economic anxiety of working class whites and steer it toward paranoia that their troubles are the fault of “other” people – the slackers and the moochers, Ayn Rand’s famous “parasites.” Since the ’60s, those parasites are most frequently understood to be African American or Latino – but they’re always understood to be the “lesser-than” folks, morally, intellectually and genetically weaker than the rest of us.
Today, though, the “parasites” Republicans rail against also happen to be white. Ryan’s intellectual soulmate Charles Murray, of course, has shown that the struggling white working class is now besieged by the same bad morals that dragged down African Americans – laziness, promiscuity and a preference for welfare over work. Ryan himself rails against the “takers” who are living off the “makers.” And while in the realm of dog whistle politics, many Republicans hope working class whites still see the takers as “other,” in fact, Ryan’s definition of “taker” includes much of the GOP base. It’s up to Democrats to make that plain to the electorate.
Ryan’s selection by Mitt Romney is a huge gift to Barack Obama and Joe Biden – and to the country. This is a clear electoral choice, with the potential for a rousing debate about the future of our country. Romney has spent two years refusing to tell us what he’d do as president. He’s literally said on more than one occasion that he won’t reveal his plans for specific program cuts, because if he did, people might not vote for him. But now he’s tied to a guy who’s revealed his pro-plutocrat agenda in bloody detail. What Obama this week called “Romneyhood” – Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor and giving to the rich – is best described as “Ryanhood.” Ryan’s budget is so devastating to the poor and middle class that it earned him a rebuke from the nation’s Catholic Bishops, the first time in memory they’ve entered politics for any reason but to deny women freedom and promote Republicans.
Yet Ryan’s polarizing persona isn’t merely a matter of his budget details, it’s his entire approach to public life. He’s making his career on that Ayn Randian conflict between “the takers and the makers.” In a recent interview Ryan previewed gems from what seems to be the core of his stump speech, judging from his appearances today. But he laid out what the 2012 GOP race is about, in a longer peroration on makers and takers:
We risk hitting a tipping point in our society where we have more takers than makers … President Obama’s policies are feverishly putting more people in the column of being takers than makers. We’re going to either have a taker society or a maker society. The president is trying to create more of a permanent class of government dependents.
In the 70s, of course, Ryan’s GOP won over the white working class with these sorts of anti-welfare appeals, and at the time it was understood that the takers weren’t white. The toughest issue for today’s GOP is that increasingly, government takers are white; many are white seniors, the core of the GOP base. I’ve written before about Dartmouth political scientist Dean Lacy’s work showing that the more federal money a county receives, the more likely it is to vote Republican. That money might not be merely food stamps or temporary aid for needy families; it might also be crop subsidies, housing payments, Medicaid and even military spending, along with the wildly popular Medicare and Social Security.
Traditionally, Republicans have protected that kind of government spending while trying to slash money for the “undeserving poor,” but Ryan wants to cut all of it (except military spending). So much of the Republican base, Lacy says, has “the luxury of voting on social issues knowing that these federal spending programs will be kept in place.” But not anymore. That’s what Ryan brings to the GOP ticket – and the gift he gives to the Democratic ticket.
By the way, it’s a gift that will be immediately returned if the rumors that President Obama plans to name Erskine Bowles his new Treasury Secretary are true. Ryan was a Simpson-Bowles Commission member, though he eventually voted against its entitlement cutting because it also recommended tax increases. Bowles’ deficit-cutting fetishism is exactly what keeps the Democratic Party from offering a clear alternative to the GOP. Ryan’s addition to the GOP ticket makes the choice between Republicans and Democrats crystal clear. As long as Democrats remember that they’re Democrats.
(An earlier version of this piece stated that Miami University of Ohio was a private institution. It is a public university that Ryan attended as an out-of-state student from Wisconsin.)
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
More Related Stories
- Portland's senseless war on fluoride
- Graphic video reportedly shows possible London machete attack suspect
- What economists get wrong about the jobs crisis
- Ted Cruz: "I don't trust the Republicans"
- Pa. governor "can't find" any Latinos to work in his administration
- Glenn Beck: "The American people have just been raped"
- "Original Coca-Cola had a very small amount of cocaine"
- Corporations accused of wrongdoing win battle to keep identities secret
- Weak, incompetent Democrats blow another one
- Lois Lerner, IRS disaster
- Cyber attacks could cause the next world war
- Donald Rumsfeld worried that marriage equality will lead to polygamy
- Experts: Fox News spying scandal a game-changer
- Biden cracks Obama teleprompter joke
- IRS official takes the Fifth: "I have not done anything wrong"
- Lessons from Lincoln leave gay immigrants behind
- Los Angeles elects first Jewish mayor
- Peter King: There's "hypocrisy" over aid by Oklahoma senators
- Anthony Weiner announces run for NYC mayor
- How policy nihilists in the Senate doomed LGBT immigrants
- On freedom of speech, Obama-Nixon comparisons are apt
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11