How will the chaos that the crazies, I mean the Freedom Caucus, have wrought in the House get resolved? I have no idea. But as this column went to press, practically the whole Republican establishment was pleading with Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, to become speaker. He is, everyone says, the only man who can save the day.
What makes Ryan so special? The answer, basically, is that he’s the best con man they’ve got. His success in hoodwinking the news media and self-proclaimed centrists in general is the basis of his stature within his party. Unfortunately, at least from his point of view, it would be hard to sustain the con game from the speaker’s chair.
To understand Ryan’s role in our political-media ecosystem, you need to know two things. First, the modern Republican Party is a post-policy enterprise, which doesn’t do real solutions to real problems. Second, pundits and the news media really, really don’t want to face up to that awkward reality.
On the first point, just look at the policy ideas coming from the presidential candidates, even establishment favorites like Marco Rubio, the most likely nominee given Jeb Bush’s fatal lack of charisma. The Times’ Josh Barro has dubbed Rubio’s tax proposal the “puppies and rainbows” plan, consisting of trillions in giveaways with not a hint of how to pay for them – just the assertion that growth would somehow make it all good.
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And it’s not just taxes, it’s everything. For example, Republicans have been promising to offer an alternative to Obamacare ever since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, but have yet to produce anything resembling an actual health plan.
Yet most of the news media, and most pundits, still worship at the church of “balance.” They are committed to portraying the two big parties as equally reasonable. This creates a powerful demand for serious, honest Republicans who can be held up as proof that the party does too include reasonable people making useful proposals. As Slate’s William Saletan, who enthusiastically touted Ryan but eventually became disillusioned, wrote: “I was looking for Mr. Right – a fact-based, sensible fiscal conservative.”
And Paul Ryan played and in many ways still plays that role, but only on TV, not in real life. The truth is that his budget proposals have always been a ludicrous mess of magic asterisks: assertions that trillions will be saved through spending cuts to be specified later, that trillions more will be raised by closing unnamed tax loopholes. Or as the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center put it, they’re full of “mystery meat.”
But Ryan has been very good at gaming the system, at producing glossy documents that look sophisticated if you don’t understand the issues, at creating the false impression that his plans have been vetted by budget experts. This has been enough to convince political writers who don’t know much about policy, but do know what they want to see, that he’s the real deal. (A number of reporters are deeply impressed by the fact that he uses PowerPoint.) He is to fiscal policy what Carly Fiorina was to corporate management: brilliant at self-promotion, hopeless at actually doing the job. But his act has been good enough for media work.
His position within the party, in turn, rests mainly on this outside perception. Ryan is certainly a hard-line, Ayn Rand-loving and progressive-tax-hating conservative, but no more so than many of his colleagues. If you look at what the people who see him as a savior are saying, they aren’t talking about his following within the party, which isn’t especially passionate. They’re talking, instead, about his perceived outside credibility, his status as someone who can stand up to smarty-pants liberals – someone who won’t, says MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, be intimidated by “negative articles in The New York Times opinions page.” (Who knew we had such power?)
Which brings us back to the awkward fact that Ryan isn’t actually a pillar of fiscal rectitude, or anything like the budget expert he pretends to be. And the perception that he is these things is fragile, not likely to survive long if he were to move into the center of political rough and tumble. Indeed, his halo was visibly fraying during the few months of 2012 that he was Mitt Romney’s running mate. A few months as speaker would probably complete the process, and end up being a career-killer.
Predictions aside, however, the Ryan phenomenon tells us a lot about what’s really happening in American politics. In brief, crazies have taken over the Republican Party, but the media don’t want to recognize this reality. The combination of these two facts has created an opportunity, indeed a need, for political con men. And Ryan has risen to the challenge.