The strange disappearance of Paul Ryan
Whatever happened to Paul Ryan? Before he was made Romneyâs 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 Ryanâs game-changing capacity was based on his sweeping but failed budget reform measures, the âRoadmap for Americaâs Futureâ and âThe Path to Prosperity,â on his reputation as the Republicansâ most gifted intellectual, and on his boast that his political inspirations were Ayn Randâs âAtlas Shruggedâ and Friedrich Hayekâs âRoad to Serfdom.â
Dan Balz summed up Ryanâs appeal in the Washington Post. He would âenergize a conservative base that has been slow to warm to Romneyâ and âmake the case for economic prescriptions that include sharp cuts in spending along with tax cuts and entitlement reform more passionately than anyone else.â By picking Ryan, Balz argued, Romney would sharpen the race by drawing âbright lines with the president.â 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. âWe canât just win by default, by beating up on Obama,â Ryan confided to Balz. What was needed was for voters to be offered a clear choice: Romneyâs highway or Obamaâs byway.
Stephen F. Hayes and William Kristol, of the Weekly Standard, urged Romney on. âGo bold, Mitt!â they yelled. âPick Paul Ryan, the Republican partyâs intellectual leader, the man whoâs laid out the core of the post-Obama policy agenda . . .â The National Reviewâs Rich Lowry agreed. âItâs been a cardinal rule of Republican politics that itâs OK to talk about balancing the budget, so long as no one talks about touching the entitlements that drive the long-term debt,â he wrote. âRomney needs to make the case for his program, and perhaps no one is better suited to contribute to this effort than Ryan.â When Romney picked Ryan on Aug. 11, the Wall Street Journal celebrated. âNearly everyone had expected Mitt Romney, the cautious technocrat and political calculator, to make the âsafeâ pick,â its editorial board wrote. âIn choosing Mr. Ryan, the Governor showed both a political daring as a candidate and a seriousness about governing if he wins.â
Yet since becoming Romneyâs 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 Newsâ Chris Wallace he had got his sums right on tax cuts. And he was eclipsed by Joe Bidenâs grimacing in the vice presidential debate. Where are Ryanâs 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. âA 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,â he told Ryan. âAnd they are now expressing some frustration that instead of you changing Romney â youâve heard this â that they feel that Romney is changing you.â Wallace quoted Scott Walker, the strike-breaking governor of Wisconsin. âI just havenât seen that kind of passionâ from Ryan, Walker complained, blaming it on âpushback from some of the folks in the national campaign.â
So has Ryan been hobbled? He insists that on the stump âweâre 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,â 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 Ryanâs 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-Assadâs opponents.
Instead of reinvigorating Romneyâs 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 Romneyâs performances, Ryan has had to stand by as the top of the ticket reinvents himself before the nationâs eyes as a middle-of-the-road moderate. Far from being âseverely conservative,â 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 presidentâs 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 Ryanâs radical lead? It is hard to know whether, if Romney is elected, Ryan will be the true president, like Dick Cheneyâs 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 Romneyâs âdonât ask, donât tellâ 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 Wapshottâs 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