Flip side of Sarah Palin

The past two weeks have shown us that Paul Ryan isn't so different from the GOP's last pick for vice president

Topics: Paul Ryan, 2012 Elections, Sarah Palin, Republican Party, Bill Clinton,

Flip side of Sarah PalinPaul Ryan and his wife, Janna, celebrate during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 30. (Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

What was the biggest difference between the Tampa Republicans and the Charlotte Democrats? That’s easy: substance. Policy substance, that is. Bill Clinton’s tour de force on Wednesday night was a substantive defense of Barack Obama’s accomplishments and attacks on Mitt Romney’s proposals. Obama, too, got a little on the wonky side; the first half of his speech reminded people of a State of the Union, with a laundry list of programs to defend and propose. In Tampa? Not so much. Lots of effect, but a lot less policy.

Paul Ryan, we were all told when he was selected, was a wonk; his selection meant that we were going to have a big ideas debate. And yet his vice-presidential speech was anything but, and what substance he did include was blasted by the fact checkers.

Sort of the way another Republican running mate was blasted for inaccuracies in her convention speech four years ago. Remember how she bragged about opposing the bridge to nowhere, only to have it be revealed that she had first supported it?

OK. Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin. He is, after all, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and he certainly knows federal public policy issues far better than the Sage of Wasilla ever has.

And yet Ryan’s reputation for true wonkishness seems to be vastly overstated. He’s less a wonk than a policy naif’s idea of a wonk – just enough “baselines” and “percent of GDP” and charts to make it all look nice, but very little under the hood. As Paul Krugman said recently:

Look, Ryan hasn’t “crunched the numbers”; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal.

Krugman is concerned in that post with how Ryan dupes self-proclaimed budget hawks, but Ryan is duping Republicans, too.



Of course he is; who would know? We’re talking about a party that accepted Palin as a candidate qualified for the presidency in 2008, and that fell for Herman Cain at one point in the nomination fight last year. Granted, the rank-and-file voters aren’t going to be checking the math of their congressional leadership, but neither is anyone else. Or if they are, they are rapidly named RINOs and escorted from the party.

No, again, Ryan isn’t Cain, either. But a genuine wonk wouldn’t be passing off phony numbers.

The thing is, Republicans have spent 30 years convincing themselves of several things that combine to make real policy expertise a dangerous thing to have for their politicians. One is Reagan-worship, which has often taken the form of contrasting Reagan’s ignorance of details and clear “big-picture” view with Jimmy Carter’s micromanaging. A second is anti-elitism, which dates back at least to the Nixon/Agnew attack on the press and academics, leaving current movement conservatives with an often-remarked virtually postmodern rejection of any objective truth. And then there are the RINO-hunters, who are eager to pounce on anyone who deviates from whatever the current party line might be.

Real wonks, however, do know the details. They talk about policy and not in platitudes, which puts them on the record in ways that can harm them when the party line changes. And the truth is that you can’t be a real wonk if you don’t accept some sort of objective standards and reality, even if it’s only the tyranny, as Bill Clinton said, of arithmetic.

So what’s a Republican politician to do? Palin’s path is one option: simply don’t concede the need to have any idea what you’re talking about at all. Policy knowledge is per se elitist and therefore suspect.

But Ryan has found another, perhaps even better path. Not becoming a conservative wonk, because under present conditions that can’t be done, but by becoming a faux wonk. Retain the movement’s disdain for objective truth, details and even real position-taking (after all, Ryan easily slipped from bashing Affordable Care Act Medicare cuts in 2010 to supporting them in 2011 to opposing them again once he was on the ticket in 2012). But learn to use words such as “entitlements” and “reconciliation” and snow the rubes under with charts and PowerPoint presentations. And a bonus: A fair chunk of people who aren’t even conservatives will buy it and enhance your prestige.

The latter worked fine as long as Ryan was somewhat under the radar (and you know that the kinds of people who get duped by that act are the kind who don’t really take congressional action very seriously anyway). It was, to some extent, exposed in Tampa.

Yet Ryan’s reputation among movement conservatives is absolutely secure, and there’s every possibility he could be vice president of the United States next year, and a future president. And surely he’s far more qualified for that spot than Sarah Palin. But not by as much as you might think.

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>