Tuesday, October 02, 2012

What happens to Paul Ryan when people begin to ask him tough questions?

One reason that Paul Ryan's reputation as the One Honest Republican was so absurdly inflated by the punditry was that he was rarely asked tough questions, and his policy proposals and world-view were rarely subjected to careful or serious analysis.

Jonathan Chait, on the other hand, did his homework a long time ago and has always had Ryan's number.  One of the best in-depth examinations of Ryan, his political significance, and the curious interplay between his image and reality is a profile that Chait wrote in April 2012 titled "The Legendary Paul Ryan".  I recommend reading the whole thing, carefully, but here are some highlights from the introductory paragraphs:
The implosion of the Newt Gingrich presidential campaign—the first implosion, before the weird resurrection and inevitable second implosion—came because he used four words: right-wing social engineering. He used the phrase, last May, to describe the Republican budget designed by GOP icon Paul Ryan. It was as if he had urinated on Ronald Reagan’s grave. Party leaders rounded on him. [....]  Gingrich quickly apologized to Ryan, pledged his fealty to the document, and then, lending his confession an extracted-at-NKVD-gunpoint ­flavor, announced, “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.” It was no use: Despite years of diligent service, his support among Republicans collapsed, his fellow partisans holding him in the low regard ordinarily reserved for liberals.

Ryan’s rise occurred so rapidly that an old hand like Gingrich hadn’t yet fully grasped the fact that he had become unassailable, though most (and, by now, virtually all) of his fellow Republicans had. Ryan’s prestige explains, among other things, the equanimity with which movement conservatives have reluctantly accepted the heresies of Mitt Romney. They may not have an ideal candidate, but they believe Romney could not challenge Ryan even if he so desired.
“Now, we are truly at an inflection point, between the Barack Obama and Paul Ryan approaches to government,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote recently, treating the elevation of the chairman of the House Budget Committee over the presidential nominee as his party’s standard-bearer as so obvious it requires no explanation. “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget,” says anti-tax enforcer Grover Norquist. “Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.” In any case, Romney has shown no inclination to challenge Ryan, praising him fulsomely and even promising him, according to The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, he’d enact Ryan’s plan in the first 100 days. Republicans envision an administration in which Romney has relegated himself to a kind of head-of-state role, at least domestically, with Ryan as the actual head of government.

To find a parallel to the way Ryan has so thoroughly seized control of the Republican agenda and identity, you have to go back at least to Gingrich in his nineties heyday, or possibly to Reagan. Yet Gingrich and Reagan rose to the national scene while cultivating an image as radicals—it was their battle scars, inflicted by the mainstream political Establishment, that lent them the credibility to speak for the conservative base. Ryan, by contrast, has achieved something much stranger: He has ascended to his present position aloft a chorus of acclaim from the corners of the Establishment that once greeted Gingrich and Reagan with loathing. He is the only politician revered as much by the mainstream media as by the tea party. By some measure, he’s the most popular guy in Washington.

The Paul Ryan that has been introduced to America is a figure of cinematic rectitude—a Jimmy Stewart character, but brainier. [....] When Obama denounced Ryan’s plan last year, he provoked not just fury from the right but anguished wails from the bipartisan center. Earlier this month, he tried again, assailing the plan [correctly—JW] as “social Darwinism.” The backlash was even more severe. [....]
Since Ryan got picked to be Mitt Romney's running mate and has had to face a little more critical scrutiny, this image has taken a bit of a beating. Ryan's speech at the Republican Convention, which exposed him to a national audience, was so blatantly misleading, evasive, and outright dishonest that even the most blinkered pundits and journalists were forced to take notice, and the realization that this particular emperor might not actually have any clothes has been slowly spreading. In fact, Chait just wrote a column titled "The Paul Ryan Legend Dissipates".
Ryan is still an extremely skilled bullshitter — vastly better at it than Romney. But he’s actually seeing, for the first time, questions that attempt to pry information out of him, rather than the batting practice lobs to which he’s accustomed. He’s going to emerge from the race with his legend punctured.
Given the gullibility and superficiality of the pundits and the short memories of the public, that conclusion may prove to be premature. Ryan still has a loyal following on the Republican hard right, and at this point I wouldn't rule out the possibility of seeing him at the head of a national Republican ticket in the future, described as "brave" and "serious" by incorrigibly naive pundits—though I certainly hope not. Nevertheless, Chait is definitely right to point out that Ryan has lost some of his teflon lately.

—Jeff Weintraub

New York Magazine
October 1, 2012
The Paul Ryan Legend Dissipates
By Jonathan Chait

Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate is subjecting him to all manner of strange new indignities, such as questions about public policy that are different than those that his own press staff would have written. The Washington Post reported this weekend that Ryan has opposed bipartisan compromises to reduce the budget deficit. The facts in the story aren’t new. (If anything, they understate the active, crucial role Ryan has played in killing these deals.) What’s new is that the publicly available facts about Ryan’s opposition to bipartisan deficit reduction is penetrating the media narrative about him, which has always presented him as the very opposite.

And then there was Ryan’s surreal interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News:

Wallace is trying to do something that Ryan is not used to: ask him how the numbers in his plan add up. The Romney tax plan is premised on a mathematical impossibility. It promises to reduce tax rates by 20 percent and cover the lost revenue by eliminating tax deductions, exempting tax breaks for investment income. Even making a series of assumptions ranging from friendly to impossibly friendly, it can’t add up. The lost revenue from the tax rate cuts on income over $250,000 exceeds the available revenue from eliminating deductions. Even Republican attempts to disprove this finding have inadvertently confirmed it.

In the interview, Wallace tries to walk through the facts with Ryan. He begins by asking about the cost of the rate cuts, which is about $5 trillion over a decade. Ryan refuses to answer the question. He tries various tricks to avoid it. First he pretends Wallace is asking a different question — that he’s asking about the net cost of the entire plan, rather than the gross cost of the rate cuts. He cracks jokes about the unreliability of statistics. He filibusters by making a speech about economic growth.

Wallace asks the question seven times, and Ryan fills one minute and 48 seconds avoiding it. Finally, the final time Wallace asks Ryan to give him the math, Ryan asserts, “It would take me too long to go through all the math.” There was plenty of time if he hadn’t spent two minutes dodging the question! In any case, the math doesn’t take a long time to explain, but Ryan doesn’t want to explain it, because it would reveal unavoidable and unpopular trade-offs in the campaign’s tax plan that he’d rather conceal.

A person who thinks highly of Ryan, or who notes the sudden souring of his media coverage, might suspect that the problem lies in the fact that he is now defending Romney’s plan rather than his own. But that is not the case. Ryan’s plan is worse. His would cut tax rates lower than Romney’s (the Ryan budget would reduce the top tax rate to 25 percent, against the 28 percent Romney proposes) and rather than hold rates on investment income constant, he would eliminate all taxes on investment income. [JW: This would mean that someone like Romney, almost all of whose income consists of capital gains and payments disguised as capital gains through the "carried interest" loophole, would pay essentially NO federal taxes.] Taxes are one of the many black holes in the Ryan budget. He asked the Congressional Budget to score his plan as if it held revenue at a constant level, and the CBO basically said, “well, okay, if you say so,” but Ryan never comes close to saying how he would fill in the trillions of dollars of missing revenue that would require.

And nobody has ever asked him. Because Ryan’s role in the budget discourse was not to be questioned, but to question others. If he was asked to comment, it was to express his sadness over Obama’s alleged unwillingness to enact the bipartisan debt plans that Ryan in fact killed.

Ryan is still an extremely skilled bullshitter — vastly better at it than Romney. But he’s actually seeing, for the first time, questions that attempt to pry information out of him, rather than the batting practice lobs to which he’s accustomed. He’s going to emerge from the race with his legend punctured.

Update: Ryan explains his strategy to a talk radio host: "When you're offering very specific, bold solutions, confusion can be your enemy's best weapon." In other words, when you're specific and bold, your enemy will try to trap you into being specific. Don't let them!