Earlier this year, as Mitt Romney struggled to win the hearts of conservative voters in the Republican primaries, he enthusiastically adopted extreme positions that were sure to come back to haunt him in the general-election campaign. From immigrant-bashing to abortion absolutism to climate-change denial, Romney was apparently willing to say pretty much anything at all to win the nomination.
In a gift to both Democrats and political writers, one of Romney’s advisors then coined the political term of the year. His boss would not suffer at the polls in November for all the extreme positions he had embraced, he claimed, because his campaign could “shake the Etch-a-Sketch” as soon as the nomination was secured. Romney would, therefore, soon be repudiating (or at least distancing himself from) the positions that he had taken for the last several years—which were, in turn, repudiations of (and distancings from) positions that Romney had taken in still earlier years.
Now, the former Massachusetts governor has named Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his Vice Presidential choice, and the Etch-a-Sketch imagery is all too real, once again. This time, however, we have the Romney campaign trying to manage the public image of someone whose record is consistent, unambiguous—and sure to be extremely unpopular with swing voters. How will the campaign handle this problem? In the same way that they are trying to handle Romney’s opportunistic inconsistency: Pretend that the record does not matter, and shake a new Etch-a-Sketch with Paul Ryan’s name on it.
Romney’s mouthpieces announced, almost immediately after Ryan’s media rollout on Saturday morning, that the Romney campaign was not to be identified with Ryan’s policies. Even though Romney had endorsed nearly every aspect of Ryan’s policy proposals over the course of the primaries (and in the years leading up to the current campaign), we are now being assured that Romney has “his own plan” for spending, taxes, and nearly everything else.
If you do not like anything that either Romney or Ryan has ever said, in other words, the Romney campaign is telling you that you need not worry: Romney will announce plans that are better than all that. Someday—maybe even before Election Day. But maybe not.
The Real Paul Ryan: A Non-Intellectual Ideologue, With No Expertise in Budgeting or Economics
The Romney camp, of course, could have chosen a running mate whose record would not have to be repudiated. Surely, that would have been a wiser choice. In a sign of that campaign’s weakness and desperation, however, Romney and his advisors concluded that they actually had to waste the all-important Vice Presidential choice on an effort to energize their hyper-conservative base—the very people who already hate President Obama intensely, yet cannot bring themselves to get excited about Mitt Romney and his ideological emptiness.
How to spin this pick as a positive for the campaign? Play up Ryan’s wholly undeserved reputation as a “wonk,” a “serious guy,” and a “fiscal expert” who is ready to have a “real conversation” about the issues facing the country. Where did that reputation come from? Thin air.
Earlier this year, in the second part of a series of columns about a potential Romney presidency, I described how Ryan’s supposed seriousness as a budget expert was entirely undeserved. (The first part of that series can be found here, and the second here.) In particular, people talk as if Ryan has “run the numbers” to make an important contribution to the debate over deficit reduction. But that is simply not the case.
The reality is that Ryan—no less than Romney himself—has simply made up numbers as he pleases. For a devastating example, see an analysis by Ezra Klein for The Washington Post, where Klein exposed the fraudulent nature of Ryan’s long-term budget projections.
Many people seem to think that Ryan has announced a tax plan that will raise adequate revenues, and a plan to slow the growth of spending on Medicare. In fact, Ryan simply assumes that tax revenues will rise to a certain level and that Medicare spending will be lower under his plan. Why? Because he says so.
This is not the work of a “budget wonk.” Any college Freshman can spend an afternoon looking at budget projections and make the long-term numbers add up, if he is given the ability to apply magical thinking and simply assert that he can make the numbers rise and fall at will.
How magical is this thinking? Even after savaging nearly every federal program that is designed to help the poor—and making sure that state governments will be forced to do the same, by slashing federal contributions to Medicaid and other aid to states—Ryan’s budget assumes that all federal discretionary spending (that is, including military spending, but not including Social Security and health care) will come in below the amount that Mitt Romney has said he will spend on the military alone. In other words, Ryan’s supposed plan dramatically contradicts even Romney’s plan (as well as numerous other analyses that are actually based on facts).
Similarly, Ryan’s tax projections simply amount to a belief in the long-discredited idea that tax cuts more than pay for themselves—an idea that even a Romney economic advisor once dismissed as the ravings of “charlatans and cranks.”
Ryan, like Romney, wants to cut taxes on the rich. Ryan, however, throws off all pretense of concern for the middle class and simply proposes eliminating taxes on all investment income. Ryan would thus make the already-shaky progressivity of the U.S. tax system even more of a fantasy, which would be made even worse by his plan to eliminate almost all tax brackets and to take the few remaining teeth out of the corporate tax system. And after all this, people and businesses will—according to Ryan—end up paying more in taxes to the government, because they are so excited about being freed from the oppression of our already-historically-low effective tax rates. Charlatans and cranks, indeed.
In short, Paul Ryan’s supposedly breathtaking expertise on budget policy—enshrined in two consecutive House budget plans that his Republican colleagues eagerly passed in 2011 and 2012—boils down to nothing more than an anti-government dream scenario. There is simply no substance underneath the public relations image.
How the Smoke and Mirrors Work: The Pundit Class’s Ignorance About Budget Issues, and Their Need to Believe That There Are “Serious Conservative Thinkers”
Despite all of these facts—facts that are there for anyone to see—even some liberal pundits are begrudgingly describing Ryan as a serious thinker. “Sure, we might not agree with him, but you have to give him his due,” was the theme of many responses by Democrats and liberal pundits to the announcement of Ryan as the Vice Presidential pick.
How could this happen? Obviously, conservative pundits and Republican operatives would be quick to try to sell Ryan as something that he is not—and to praise him with unintended irony, such as when Romney himself damned Ryan with the faint praise of being an “intellectual leader” of the Republican Party. But why would those who are not on the far right go along with this sham?
One answer is that budgets are boring. All political commentators know that they are supposed to care about budgets and government deficits, but in virtually every case, they really do not understand what they are talking about. This makes it essential for them to hide behind the comforting bromides of the Beltway’s conventional wisdom.
Ryan and his acolytes exploit this intellectual insecurity, of course, both by simply repeating how serious they are (and knowing that repetition alone will convince many people that it is true), and by throwing around as many numbers as they can. They then rely on people’s natural tendency to think, as to politicians especially, that “They’re all lying,” to make it seem that those who point to Ryan’s dishonesty are simply using “their own numbers” to discredit Ryan’s numbers—numbers that are, supposedly, built on equally valid intellectual underpinnings, but based upon different assumptions.
This game is all the more important because of the cottage industry in the U.S. press that decries the “gridlock” in Washington, blaming it on the supposedly equally-guilty partisans on both sides of the aisle. If both sides are exaggerating and distorting, then we need to find people who are honest brokers. And because there are no honest brokers on the right, one must, it seems, be invented. Ryan, who looks like a nerdy accountant, answers the casting call, even though he is just as detached from reality as colleagues like Michelle Bachmann (whose views on social issues Ryan clearly shares, by the way).
This VP Nomination Is Not Just a Political Game: The Romney Camp Would Actually Follow Ryan Off the Edge of the (Flat) Earth
All of this would be at least darkly humorous, if it were merely a matter of watching a flailing political campaign try to distract attention from questions about, say, the unwillingness of the man at the top of the ticket to release his tax returns (or even to fill in the most basic details of his tax and spending plans). Figuring out how to “change the game,” without the huge risk of choosing an unknown quantity like Sarah Palin, is part of what campaigns without content must do.
The Ryan pick, however, is not merely about winning the election. As I wrote in my two Verdict columns discussing a potential Romney presidency (links to which appear earlier in this column), Paul Ryan was already set up to run Washington if the White House were nominally under the management of Mitt Romney.
Ryan was unsuccessfully courted by conservative activists to challenge Romney in the primaries. Even though Ryan did not ultimately run, it was clear that Romney was never going to be in a position to deviate from the policies that Ryan and his extreme conservative colleagues in the House would dictate. Even if the Senate were still in the hands of the Democrats, Romney would never be permitted to deviate from the Ryan line.
Romney is, after all, living in a new world where Republican incumbents have good reason to fear being challenged in primaries. There is no reason to think that the true believers behind Ryan would sit by and watch Romney compromise, when compromise has become a dirty word. One could even readily imagine a carefully-contrived schism, in which a disgusted Ryan leaves the Romney Administration, to challenge his former running mate in the 2016 Republican primaries.
It would never need to come to anything as dramatic as that, however. One thing that Mitt Romney has shown is that he will do and say whatever is necessary to please his party’s base. Choosing Ryan, rather than someone with a less clear record for Democrats to run against, would have been safer in the context of this election. The same people who exalt Ryan, however, obviously made it clear that their support was not even to be taken for granted on the Vice Presidential pick.
All of the people, especially the liberal and centrist pundits, who are now happily anticipating the “real debate” that we will now supposedly have about the purpose of government, can prepare to be disappointed. Paul Ryan does not know how to argue. He only makes categorical statements about the evils of government—statements that thrill his narrow constituency, but that have nothing to back them up. When Ryan is challenged, he says things like: “Trust me, I know the numbers better than you do,” or “We just have to agree to disagree.” But pronouncements like those are not arguments, and they are certainly not the basis for a substantive debate.
There is no reason, moreover, to think that Ryan, now that he is Romney’s VP pick, will stop making broad assertions without evidence. That is his stock in trade. Thus, the Romney campaign will have its hands full, shaking Ryan’s Etch-a-Sketch every day, and hoping that the people who like his bland looks and misleadingly pleasant demeanor continue to ignore the truly disturbing things that he actually believes.