The strange disappearance of Paul Ryan
Whatever happened to Paul Ryan? Before he was made Romney’s running mate in early August, he was billed by commentators as a free-thinking firebrand who would invigorate the campaign with his keen intellect and forensic argumentative skills. Evidence for Ryan’s game-changing capacity was based on his sweeping but failed budget reform measures, the “Roadmap for America’s Future” and “The Path to Prosperity,” on his reputation as the Republicans’ most gifted intellectual, and on his boast that his political inspirations were Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.”
Dan Balz summed up Ryan’s appeal in the Washington Post. He would “energize a conservative base that has been slow to warm to Romney” and “make the case for economic prescriptions that include sharp cuts in spending along with tax cuts and entitlement reform more passionately than anyone else.” By picking Ryan, Balz argued, Romney would sharpen the race by drawing “bright lines with the president.” For months Romney had coasted along on the assumption Obama would lose simply because unemployment is high and the economy is in the tank, but by midsummer the president remained firmly ahead. “We can’t just win by default, by beating up on Obama,” Ryan confided to Balz. What was needed was for voters to be offered a clear choice: Romney’s highway or Obama’s byway.
Stephen F. Hayes and William Kristol, of the Weekly Standard, urged Romney on. “Go bold, Mitt!” they yelled. “Pick Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s intellectual leader, the man who’s laid out the core of the post-Obama policy agenda . . .” The National Review’s Rich Lowry agreed. “It’s been a cardinal rule of Republican politics that it’s OK to talk about balancing the budget, so long as no one talks about touching the entitlements that drive the long-term debt,” he wrote. “Romney needs to make the case for his program, and perhaps no one is better suited to contribute to this effort than Ryan.” When Romney picked Ryan on Aug. 11, the Wall Street Journal celebrated. “Nearly everyone had expected Mitt Romney, the cautious technocrat and political calculator, to make the ‘safe’ pick,” its editorial board wrote. “In choosing Mr. Ryan, the Governor showed both a political daring as a candidate and a seriousness about governing if he wins.”
Yet since becoming Romney’s personal ambassador to the feisty GOP base, Ryan has fizzled. His big three contributions have hardly lived up to the promise invested in him by so many conservative big-wigs. His Tampa Convention speech was, well, conventional. In a marquee interview, he failed to convince Fox News’ Chris Wallace he had got his sums right on tax cuts. And he was eclipsed by Joe Biden’s grimacing in the vice presidential debate. Where are Ryan’s keynote speeches that tackle the big issues with devastating effect? Where the chapter and verse on how to find enough tax loopholes to stimulate the economy into creating 12 million new jobs over four years? Where the dazzling intellect we were told so much about?
Before the debate, Wallace had spotted something was amiss. “A number of top Republicans say that, when Romney picked you as his running mate a little over a month ago, that they thought that this indicated that you guys were going to run a bold reform agenda campaign,” he told Ryan. “And they are now expressing some frustration that instead of you changing Romney – you’ve heard this – that they feel that Romney is changing you.” Wallace quoted Scott Walker, the strike-breaking governor of Wisconsin. “I just haven’t seen that kind of passion” from Ryan, Walker complained, blaming it on “pushback from some of the folks in the national campaign.”
So has Ryan been hobbled? He insists that on the stump “we’re walking people through how we fix Medicare, how we fix Social Security, how we create jobs, how we reform the tax code, how we have an energy policy, an education policy, a trade policy,” but there is little evidence such educative expositions, if they exist, have affected the campaign at large. Instead, the only headlines Ryan has raised lately are when he asked a soup kitchen to leave some dirty plates so he could be photographed washing them, when GOP Senate hopeful Tommy Thompson distanced himself from Ryan’s famous budget plan, when he had himself photographed pumping iron, and when he attracted the ire of Kofi Anan for suggesting the best way to bring peace to Syria was to heavily arm any and all of Bashar al-Assad’s opponents.
Instead of reinvigorating Romney’s campaign with bold, radical evocations of a brave new world where old people clutching vouchers buy pensions on the open market, Ryan, it appears, has been hidden away lest he frighten the horses. Instead of putting backbone into Romney’s performances, Ryan has had to stand by as the top of the ticket reinvents himself before the nation’s eyes as a middle-of-the-road moderate. Far from being “severely conservative,” as he led Republicans to believe he was in the primaries, Romney now believes in bailing out banks and imposing tough government regulations on them. He claims to have recommended to Obama an auto-industry bailout program identical to the one the president’s car czar, Steve Rattner, eventually administered. And he says he is as determined as the president to increase the tax burden on the rich. Far from radicalizing Romney, Ryan has acted as a Judas goat to lure his conservative and libertarian followers into the pen.
The problem for voters is to know what to believe. Is Romney a genuine convert to centrism who has entrapped Ryan because it is better to have such a dangerous ideologue inside the tent? Is Romney a closet libertarian whose chameleon antics will lead to a Ryan-inspired revolution to shrink the size of the federal government? Or is he a mere apolitical chief executive who will follow Ryan’s radical lead? It is hard to know whether, if Romney is elected, Ryan will be the true president, like Dick Cheney’s ventriloquist act with George W. Bush. For those who simply want to see the back of Obama, it may be a gamble worth taking. But Romney’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” response to all important questions, from tax policy to what is in his tax returns, is little help for those who do not wish to buy a pig in a poke come Nov. 6.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics has just been published in paperback by W. W. Norton. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan takes the stage to introduce Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at a campaign rally at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colorado October 23, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder