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The Unserious Mr. Ryan and the Idea-Free Mr. Gingrich: Understanding the Beltway’s Confusion of Mere Ideology With Actual Ideas

Elections often have the unfortunate effect of driving out serious discussion and elevating piffle.  This year’s Presidential election is, in most respects, no exception to that rule.  In one respect, however, the campaign has had the fortunate effect of exploding the mythology surrounding two Republican politicians: Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Ryan had been receiving a free ride from the Washington press corps for the last several years, basking in accolades for his supposedly “serious” and “brave” budget plans.  For reasons that I will discuss later in this column, many centrist Democrats and even liberal commentators played along with this fantasy of who Ryan is and what he might accomplish.  When Ryan was added to the Republican Presidential ticket, however, political necessity forced Democrats and centrist independents to stop pretending that Ryan was something that he is not (and never has been).

Over the last few weeks, therefore, it has finally become acceptable inside the Beltway to challenge the accepted narrative on Ryan.  After the initial burst of nonsense about his exercise routine and only-in-comparison-to-other-politicians good looks, Ryan is now correctly seen as a budget fraud, an extreme Religious Right social conservative, and a man whose views on monetary policy can quite rightly be described as “nutty.”  Moreover, in a challenge to what was supposed to be his main appeal to his party’s arch-conservative base, Mr. Ryan is turning out to be an unprincipled politician who is willing to shade his positions opportunistically, rather than the candid straight-shooter he had been sold as being.

The Parallel Between Gingrich and Ryan:  Both Have Falsely Been Sold to the Public as “Ideas Guys”

Interestingly, a similar unmasking of a carefully cultivated Beltway persona occurred during the Republican primaries, earlier this year.  For years, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had enjoyed a reputation as the “ideas guy,” one of those people whom centrist commentators would describe with analyses beginning roughly as follows: “Even if you disagree with much of what Gingrich says, you have to admit that he’s a big thinker.”

However, the silliness of that image was rapidly exposed when Gingrich ran for President in the Republican primaries.  As he made ever-more-bizarre policy suggestions, such as his proposal of putting children to work as school janitors, he was rightly mocked for being anything but a serious intellectual.  By far the best dismissal of his supposed seriousness came from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who noted last year: “He prides himself, after all, on being a man of ideas. It is rarely mentioned that the ideas are mostly chuckleheaded.”

Most interesting about the unmaskings of Messrs. Ryan and Gingrich is what they tell us about the free pass that right-wing ideologues generally receive from commentators and mainstream politicians alike.  There is an important difference, after all, between being an ideologue and having ideas, but the usual conversation in Washington treats the two as being essentially the same thing (at least, for Republicans).  Ryan and Gingrich have learned certain ideological orthodoxies well, but that is not the same thing as their actually being able to think clearly, or to articulate useful ideas that would actually help America and Americans when it comes to policymaking.

We should be happy that the election has forced the press to confront these men’s undeserved (and previously unchallenged) images of being valuable contributors to the universe of policy ideas.  We should also stop to consider why there are no similar figures on the political left in this country—why, that is, there are no liberal Democrats who receive a free pass for being “serious, even if you disagree with him (or her).”

The answer, as I will argue further below, is that there are no ideologues in the Democratic Party.  That party probably never has had a coherent ideology. And if it did once have one, it certainly does not have one now.  Instead, the Democratic Party is a party that is dominated by men and women—many of them quite intelligent, others not so much—whose ideas are based in pragmatism.  That is why there are no ideologues in the Democratic Party, even though there are a lot of ideas coming from Democrats.

The Bursting of the Ryan Bubble: Reality Strikes the Republican Ticket, Notwithstanding the Hype About Ryan’s Seriousness

Although the real picture that has now emerged about Paul Ryan is without question an unflattering one, it is important to note that he is evidently not a stupid man—especially if the standard of comparison is other young Republican Vice Presidential candidates.  In fact, Ryan is miles ahead of both Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle.  He attended an academically elite public university in Ohio (Miami University), and he clearly has had some success in learning the basic canons of various aspects of American conservative ideology.

Ryan probably even deserves the label of “wonk” that some have bestowed upon him, at least in some sense.  This is an especially odd label to discuss, however, because Ryan’s popularity among Republicans has even led Christine O’Donnell—the failed Senate candidate from Delaware, and one of the least serious thinkers the Republicans have ever embraced—to label herself a “policy wonk.”  (Her interviewer was, when she made this claim,  appropriately incredulous.)  But whether or not wonkiness is now viewed as a positive thing for a candidate to possess, it is true that Ryan is someone who knows the language of Washington policy discussions, and that he does not embarrass himself by trying to discuss actual policy questions.

Knowing which words to use, however, is hardly sufficient to make someone a thinker.  In a revealing news article, The New York Times recently reported that, as the headline put it, “Conservative Elite in Capital Pay Heed to Ryan as Thinker.”  What the article reported, however, is that the conservative elite like Mr. Ryan not because he has new or innovative ideas, but rather because he tells them what they want to hear.

One conservative academic said, after meeting Ryan: “I thought, ‘This is the one guy in Washington paying attention.’”  Another said: “When I’m having a discussion with Ryan, I’m talking to someone who knows the material as well as, if not better than, I do.”  He knows the material, apparently because he was paying attention to the self-appointed keepers of the orthodoxy.  The real message is that Ryan was an apt pupil, a sponge for the received wisdom from the right-wing think tanks.

Ryan is not, therefore, useful to the Republican Party because he is an innovative thinker.  Instead, he is useful because he “athletically argues for his policy ideas among the city’s policy elite in the white-tablecloth lunches, Capitol Hill meetings, private dinners and retreats where consensus gets formed.”  That is not being a thinker.  It is being nothing more than a useful mouthpiece, who knows the cant and when to spout it.  That is quite useful, indeed, but it is not a sign of “seriousness,” “bravery,” “vision,” “intellectualism,” or any of the other admiring words that the Washington press has previously heaped upon Paul Ryan.

Where Did the Ryan Bubble Come From? Centrist and Liberal Politicians and Commentators Played Along With the Ryan Myth

The central premise on which Mr. Ryan was given these baseless plaudits was, of course, centered on discussions of the federal budget.  Prior to his elevation to the Republican Vice Presidential slot, many people inside the Beltway accepted the idea that Ryan was a serious thinker on budgets, and especially a fierce opponent of budget deficits.  We now know, however, as I discussed in my most recent column here on Justia’s Verdict, that Ryan’s budget plans contained very real cuts for programs that help the poor and middle class, but that these were more than offset by giveaways to the wealthy.  The supposed reductions in budget deficits that Ryan touts are entirely—just as they are with the incompletely detailed plans of his running mate, Mitt Romney—a matter of Ryan telling us that he has a way to cut the deficit, but being unwilling to tell us what his approach actually is.

What we now see, therefore, is that Paul Ryan’s life before becoming the Republican’s Vice Presidential nominee was quite charmed.  He was able to be a rigid right-wing ideologue, who talked a lot about deficits and budgets, but who actually had no useful or interesting ideas of his own (or even of others) to advance the debate.  Even so, he was hailed as a serious guy.

Why, and how, did this happen?  The labeling and touting of Ryan was to a surprising degree driven by centrist budget scolds, especially those in the Democratic Party (including President Obama) who have bought into the idea that there is a “grand bargain” to be had that will bring our supposedly dangerous budgetary situation into balance.  As I also argued in my most recent Verdict column, Ryan was a central-casting face, fronting for the idea that there were serious budget analysts on the Republican side, rather than mere Tea Party ideologues.

There are certainly long-term challenges in terms of the federal budget deficit (nearly all of which are driven by rising healthcare costs, which Obama’s healthcare bill at least begins to confront).  What the standard conversation in Washington led to, however, was a stimulus program in 2009-10 that was far too timid, followed by a disastrous “pivot” to deficit reduction by the Democrats.  This turned the manageable long-term budgetary challenges into excuses to tolerate continued high unemployment for years on end.

Centrist and center-right Democrats—again, very much including President Obama—were thus happy to have people like Paul Ryan around.  And describing him as a “thinker” made it appear that it was reasonable to try to find “sensible compromises” with a group that, in fact, simply was not willing to compromise (and that made no bones about it).

The Role of the D.C. Commentariat: Right-Wing Ideologues Are Viewed as “Smart,” While Centrist and Left-Wing Politicians Do Not Play the Ideology Game

The Ryan phenomenon, therefore, was largely fueled by the perceived need, among powerful deficit-obsessed Democrats, to find a “partner” in budget-cutting.  The role of the country’s political pundits and commentators, however, was equally important.

What is most interesting about the treatment of Ryan among the punditocracy is how closely it has paralleled the view of Newt Gingrich as a “serious thinker.”  Gingrich’s one innovative “idea,” if one wants to call it that, was to repackage the familiar conservative policy wish list into the “Contract With America” in 1994.  Gingrich did not create any new ideas, however, in the “Contract with America.”  It was entirely a matter of packaging, branding, and aggressive marketing.

Even so, like Ryan, Gingrich could regurgitate some right-wing thinkers’ ideas, and, in so doing, invoke a few impressive names, and even name a few books that he had read.  This was enough to intimidate the press—many of whom are smart and well-educated, but virtually none of whom possess the specific knowledge of policy and economics necessary to know that Gingrich and Ryan are merely spouting shallow conservative talking points as gospel.

If that is true, however, then why is it not possible for Democrats (and liberals more generally) to play the same game?  That is, why is there no Democratic version of a Gingrich or a Ryan, someone whom the national pundit class views uniformly as a “serious ideas guy (or woman)”?

One reason for this absence of a serious “ideas” person on the Democratic side (in the sense that the pundits use that term) is that the Democrats have no core ideology, no creed common to all, no hymnal from which they all can sing.  Interestingly, though, Republicans believe—because they themselves are ideologues—that Democrats must also be ideologues.  This is why they accuse Obama, absurdly, of being a Socialist and a Communist.

The Democrats, however, are simply rejecting the Republicans’ ideology, not adhering to one of their own.  Contrary to Republicans’ claims, when the Democrats say that the government can help to solve some problems that the market does not solve, the Democrats are not saying that the government can always solve all problems, or that the market never works.  Democrats approach problems as pragmatic puzzles, looking for useful answers.

This means that even the Democrats who are truly intellectually gifted—such as President Obama himself, former Senator Russell Feingold, Representative Barney Frank, and so on—are not typically described with the pundits’ seal of approval as a “serious intellectual, even if you disagree with him.”  They are given respect, generally speaking, but they do not enjoy the “smart guy” glow—the one that seems to flow from being willing to recite right-wing articles of faith—in which politicians like Ryan can wrap themselves.

As I suggested at the beginning of this column, the election of 2012 has been notably superficial and disappointing in a number of ways.  It has, however, provided an important public benefit.  The D.C. parlor game of bestowing respect on right-wing politicians with paper-thin intellectual credentials has, for the time being, been exposed.  Gingrich and Ryan are emperors who have been revealed to have no clothes.

Unfortunately, the underlying dynamics that created Gingrich and Ryan have not been displaced.  The D.C. commentariat, moreover, has a notably short memory.  As soon as the election is over, we can count on seeing these games played and replayed, over and over again.  The only question is which right-wing ideologue will be mistakenly hailed as the next intellectual giant.

Neil H. BuchananNeil H. Buchanan, a Justia columnist, is an economist and legal scholar, a Professor of Law at The George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute, Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). He blogs at DorfonLaw.org, and he is the author of The Debt Ceiling Disasters: How the Republicans Created an Unnecessary Constitutional Crisis and How the Democrats Can Fight Back.
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  • areader

    you got it nailed Mr. Buchanan. hope you push this article into the “mainstream media” somehow. more folks need to see it.

  • Aggie

    Wow 2253 words! It must have been cathartic to vent your
    spleen, but you artfully gave your emotions but not much of substance ( I know…
    Liberal GOOD… Conservative BAD) . Your commentary does not invoke serious conversation for those
    who seek considered, civil critique. From your credentials you are certainly appear capable, but like
    most of us today, we don’t reflect on what we are about to say. Instead of
    being introspective of our own underlying assumptions and balancing that with a
    constructive critique of others point of view to achieve a better solution.

  • david

    As opposed to the Obamination whose only idea is to enslave the people of America to the federal government. And I’m sure you consider yourself a man of great intellect. How you have fooled yourself.

  • pflunkie

    This essay makes me a bit embarrassed to be a GW Law School grad. Filled with strawmen and ad hominem attacks, it appears to be driven most by anger — and little by reasoned analysis.

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