The strange disappearance of Paul Ryan

By Nicholas Wapshott
October 24, 2012

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

17 comments

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I do not buy pigs in pokes and I will not buy the changing Romney and Ryan, they like to talk a good game, but will not even speculate on even one deduction they will stop to bring in the same amount of money into the treasury that they say they will bring in by denying deductions—-Romney has pulled 3 numbers out of the air, which means nothing more than he has no idea what will come about and then he says he will create 12 million jobs and runs off a bunch of statements which nothing more than talk!!!

Posted by todnwth | Report as abusive

Well after he chumped that debate with his Uncle Joe from Delaware…. he can’t show his face. Ryan was supposed to be the yooung and vibrant face of the GOP. Not the whipped stimulus-money-seeking, position-shifting embarrassment that he turned out to be.

Romney should have researched Ryan a little closer before bringing him on. Those stimulus request letters are poison.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Ryan has disappeared because, under the national spotlight, it’s apparent there is nothing there. When he was just a brash congressman, his claims received little scrutiny. He talked a lot about his “reform”, but when pressed for details, there was nothing more than cut taxes and spending. That’s it, that’s his “plan”. The fact that people consider him to be the Republican’s “most gifted intellectual” says more about the Republican party than him.

He’s hiding because if people hear him talk, it will have the same effect on the election as Sarah Palin did four years ago, and Romney knows it.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

old people clutching vouchers buy pensions on the open market. Need anyone say anything more? They tried to sellout SSI during the Bush years (No stock-broker-left-behind) and it didn’t work. Now their trying it again, on a national level. I just hope the good people of this nation can smell a rat when it comes around.

Posted by YouGoYo | Report as abusive

It is not so much of a disappearance of Paul Ryan, but rather a concerted effort by the GOP to move to the middle. Keeping Paul Ryan’s ideas in the forefront inhbits the middle-of-the-roaders and undecided voters from voting for the GOP ticket. After all, what have they got to lose. Where will the right-wingers go. They have no choice but to vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket. It is the undecided moderate votes that they will lose if they do not move to the middle.

Posted by phrpwks | Report as abusive

If your wife, daughter, or niece were raped and became pregnant, Paul Ryan would want the government to intrude into the heartwrenching and personal decision that your family wold face.

With the quest for women votes on the line, Paul Ryan is an immense liability.

The fact that his economic plans have been demonstrated as pure fantasy is just a secondary problem.

Posted by Realaskan | Report as abusive

Paul Ryan has mystified me for quite some time. He wears the mask of a Ayn Rand reading, fiscal hawk and Medicare reformer, but in reality he is a fiscal pigeon, he craps on the stoop and wonders why it smells by voting for two wars, un-funded tax cuts and Medicare D. This creates a massive and predictable deficit which then spurs his outrage years later at Obama for not balancing the budget in one term during a massive recession. His support for bailouts and requests for stimulus funding make me believe he has never read a single page of Hayek.

Posted by SchWI | Report as abusive

Both Romney and Ryan are empty vessels who sell themselves by portraying characters. phrpwks calls it “a concerted effort by the GOP to move to the middle”. I agree that Romney is now positioning himself as a moderate, in contrast to the “severe conservative” he portrayed during the primaries. But there’s no actual move to the middle. It’s only a role they’re playing to win the election.

Something that wasn’t mentioned in this op-ed and the comments, nor has there been much said about it in the nation’s discussion regarding this election, and that is the combination of these 2 dynamics: 1) Romney is not a man of strong will or strong convictions. He just wants to be President, and he’s willing to do and say just about anything to win. 2) If Romney wins, he’s going to be fronting a very driven and determined Republican Party. They don’t particularly like Romney, but they very much want Romney to win. Until election day, Romney can pretty much say whatever he wants IF it will help him get elected, and the Party leaders, conservatives, plutocrats, neocons, tea party, Christian Coalition, all the less moderate factions that make up the Republican party, will simply smile and nod their heads, because they know the game being played here. Certainly no one is worried about Romney keeping his word on anything he says. As far as they’re concerned, Romney would be winning this election for them. Not for Romney.

Grover Norquist has spelled it out for us in crystal clear terms:

“All we have to do is replace Obama. … We are not auditioning for fearless leader. 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. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate…

“Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.”

So if anyone is really wondering how Romney will govern and whether or not he’ll be a moderate only has to look to the current state of the Republican Party. And in doing that, we can take the “moderate” modifier off the table. Romney will be wearing a nice, new supply of severely conservative hats. Yes, he’ll still be the shape-shifter, eager to please, but it will all be as a conservative character actor. He wants to be liked by his party and he will want their support for a second term. And look to see a lot more of Paul Ryan IF Romney wins. He’ll be more of a spokesman for the Administration even more than most VPs. Ryan will be the guy the rightwing Congress goes to when they start issuing their orders to the new President.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

Ryan actually makes Romney look principled by comparison. Ryan is a very dumb guy who is way too old to be so into himself. He is a gym rat who ended up in Congress so he could be the young cool dude among old fat white men, since the competition in the gym was too stiff. Faking a soup kitchen visit is probably the most pathetic thing I have ever heard, even lower than creating his own, much better marathon time. These the two are biggest fakes in the history of the US and they show how treasonous the GOP has become. And Grover Norquist is an arrested adolescent who has no business whatsoever altering our government. How he controls all of GOPers in Congress is a mystery that needs solving.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

“old fat white men” — Can’t you feel the love ? Isn’t that a bigoted remark ?

Posted by Willie12345 | Report as abusive

Flashrooster has is right…Obama might have gotten more done in the first 2 years but the problem was the house and senate (blue dogs) not wanting to be painted into a corner..actual conviction and soldified power. If Romney wins the goal will be to move back to right get the senate in the 2014 midterm elections and be ready to roll with Ryan. Ryan will definitely be the gopher between Romney and congress and the go to guy. My question is how conservative the agenda might get, how much are the Republicans are going to want to have it all..and how are they planning the divi-up the conservative agenda.

Posted by x95rankin | Report as abusive

flashrooster, well said. alas, all I can do is sit-back & hope it doesn’t happen. I vote, but not in a swing-state (Alabama). Best I can hope for is to make a difference in the Probate Judge race. sigh

Posted by Egladys | Report as abusive

What sickens me (as an outside observer from Canada, biggest American trade partner and not mentioned once in either economic or foreign policy debates *cough*) is that the race is nearly a dead-heat in the popular vote. Looks like Obama has the Electoral College map in his favour, but take a step back and think that the majority of people in your country would vote for ROMNEY over Obama. That’s… that’s… that’s disgraceful! disgusting! I mean, Fox only draws like 2m viewers max… what’s the excuse for the other 310m of ya – errr I guess half of that; what’s the excuse for 155m of your people even looking at this clown and not puking? The really sad part is is that your economy is about to take off, this fiscal cliff is gonna knock out your giant structural deficit, and Romney’s regime will take/get credit. RAWR!

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Egladys: Thanks, and I commiserate with you. I live next door in Mississippi. I was walking through the other room a moment ago and the tv was on. There was a blurb on for the 10 o’clock news. Apparently there was a teacher telling her students that Obama is a Muslim. She’ll probably become the school principal within 2 years.

CDN_Rebel: I’m with you on that. It’s a national nightmare, how someone like Mitt Romney could possibly come even close to becoming President. (However, there was George W. Bush.) It’s not just having an empty shirt like Romney in the White House, and the failed policies he’s offering, but it will also set a precedent for future elections.

No longer will Americans look to nominate the best leader for President of the United States. We’ll bestow that honor on the best liar. In fact, this will prove true whether Romney wins or not. He’s been successful enough. He’s proven that a candidate can say anything and change their positions depending on the audience, and be successful. The goal will be to tell the most people what they want to hear. We’ve become that stupid. We’ve become frighteningly easy to manipulate, and it can only lead to disaster. The truth will be the casualty. Candidates won’t even be able to tell the truth because their opponent can always offer something more pleasing than the truth. That’s the game Romney’s playing and it’s working. And his supporters don’t seem to care what he says. He could tell them that his lips originally belonged to a dog’s anus and he’d probably get a bump in the polls.

During the 2000 and 2004 elections all you heard from Republicans was national security, national security. Now, they have a candidate that didn’t even bother mentioning our military during his acceptance speech at his party’s convention, and we’re still at war! How can Republican voters go from caring only about national security to not caring at all about those who have put themselves in harm’s way to serve this nation? And in such a short period of time. We have a nation of schizophrenics. Well, at least half of us.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

One of our neighbors from the Great White North asks how one half of the U.S. population could seriously vote for the current Republican ticket. The unfortunate truth is at least 37% of the voting age, and fully 42% of those eligible to vote will not even go to the polls. This is not a result of lacking the ability to perform this privilege/responsibility it is a result of apathy. During the 2008 Presidential election, of the Voting Age Population (VAP), roughly 231,229,580; only 132,645,504 or 57.37% cast votes. Nearly 100,000,000 did not bother to make their way to the polls. When that many people do not believe their vote counts they are unfortunately correct. The element of public with a bit of foresight is hard pressed to drag those unwilling to make the effort to take responsibility for their lives and the future of their nation or posterity, this creates a case of being ineffective by default. People you automatically lose if you are not willing to get into the game, please exercise the little power you do have, while it matters.

Posted by Calm-B-4-Storm | Report as abusive

Ryan will be the tail wagging the dog

Posted by Peertoperr | Report as abusive

The current state of the Republican party of Romney, Rove, GWB, Ryan, Cheney, Palin, tea lovers et. al, can be described as bankruptcy.
This is unfortunate, because if they worked constructively with Democrats, they could have contributed a lot to the progress of this country, instead of SOLELY concentrating on making Obama a one-term president and simply sabotaging him.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive