Let Paul Ryan enjoy the fair!

The man renowned for making tough political choices won't discuss "policy things" in the middle of Iowa's drought

By Joan Walsh
Published August 14, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

I was among the national pundits who believed Paul Ryan represented a bold choice as Mitt Romney's pick for vice president. Ryan certainly filled in the right-wing policy details that Romney, man of mystery, wouldn't commit to. His radicalism, I thought, would turn the election into a stark choice between the Romney-Ryan and Obama-Biden visions. And he sure thrilled the GOP base.

But only three days in, Ryan is looking like a less bold pick than commentators on the left and right believed. First of all, rather than embracing Ryan's harsh budget vision, Romney immediately began trying to distance himself from his new partner's radical proposal (even though he's endorsed it multiple times on the campaign trail and still says he'd sign it into law as president if it passed Congress). "I have my own budget plan, as you know, and that's the budget we're going to run on," Romney told Bob Schieffer on "60 Minutes" Sunday night.

And though the Beltway loves Ryan as an allegedly "serious" legislator, and the right-wing base adores him, so far the wider electorate says "meh." The USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday found that Ryan is the least popular vice-presidential nominee since Dan Quayle 24 years ago. More Americans say he's a "poor" or "fair" pick than that he's a "pretty good" or excellent" one. Sarah Palin did far better on that score four years ago. Maybe Ryan will grow on people; certainly we're being told he adds youth and vitality to the ticket. By most accounts, he's a pleasant enough guy, supposedly good at retail, person-to-person politics, which Romney stinks at. Maybe voters will come to like him.

Or maybe they won't. Ryan, who's supposed to be the warm, regular guy on the ticket, gave a whiff of that odd Romney entitlement today at the Iowa State Fair. Asked whether he supported efforts to provide federal relief to farmers struggling with the state's historic drought, Ryan waved off the reporter. "We'll get into all those policy things later," he said, adding, rather unbelievably, "Right now I just want to enjoy the fair."

That's not terribly bold of Paul Ryan. He opposes the drought relief bill that got bipartisan support in the Senate; why not talk about his alternative ideas? An Iowan told the Huffington Post Ryan should have answered the question. "There's a lot of farmers here," he said.

What made Ryan think he could duck a crucial question, particularly with the silly, entitled reply, "Right now I just want to enjoy the fair"? I wrote the other day that far from being a gritty working-class guy, Ryan grew up well-to-do in Janesville, Wis. He was embraced by the city's Republican elite, ushered into cushy congressional aide jobs at an early age, and now he's swaddled in the arms of the Koch brothers and treated with deference and respect by the Beltway press corps. He is worth between $3 million and $7 million. It's only by comparison with the enormous wealth of Mitt Romney that Ryan could be considered the average Joe on the ticket. (Oh, and irony alert? The Ryans made their construction fortunes building highways. With government money. Another Randian detail in his biography.) Clearly he and Romney are both solidly in the top 1 percent. Maybe that's why Ryan doesn't think he should be interrupted on the campaign trail by "policy things," and that he's entitled "to enjoy the fair."

But that's not how national politics works. For the next 84 days, Ryan doesn't get to enjoy any public events undisturbed by questions from voters or reporters (he got some hecklers in Iowa too, today). What kind of person thinks he can give that kind of answer on his third day on the presidential campaign trail?

A guy who's not as good at retail politics as his Republican boosters want to believe, that's for sure.

I talked about Ryan's campaign debut on MSNBC's "The Ed Show" Monday night.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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