Political Animal


April 30, 2012 10:22 AM Paul Ryan’s Crowning Achievement

By Ed Kilgore

There are lots of reasons to read Jonathan Chait’s thorough demolition of “The Legendary Paul Ryan” at New York. It offers a good, bracing reminder that Ryan is far-and-away the most important GOP politician at the moment, a man to whom Mitt Romney has largely deferred in crafting an agenda for his own administration, if he has one. It explores Ryan’s media celebrity, and particularly his appeal to Very Serious “centrist” deficit hawks. It mocks his Super-Wonk image, and his pose as a brave enemy of wasteful spending wherever it can be found.

But for my money, the most important service Chait provides in this article is to document Ryan’s roots in the sub-wing of the conservative movement famous for not giving a damn about federal budget deficits, the original supply-siders led by Ryan’s own idol Jack Kemp. These were people who were horrified by what they called the “root canal” spending cuts endlessly promoted by traditional conservatives obsessed with “green-eyeshade” budget-balancing. Ryan was prominent among those who carried this tradition into a new millenium:

Ryan has, retroactively, depicted himself as a dissenter from the fiscal profligacy of the Bush administration, and reporters have mostly accepted his account at face value. (“Ryan watched his party’s leadership inflate the deficit by cutting tax rates like Kemp conservatives while spending like Kardashians,” wrote Time last year.) In reality, Ryan was a staunch ally in Bush’s profligacy, dissenting only to urge Bush to jack up the deficit even more.
“We noticed that the green-eyeshade, austerity wing of the party was afraid of class warfare,” Ryan said during Bush’s first term. “They fear increases in the debt, and they were overlooking issues of growth, opportunity, and free markets.” For those uninitiated in the tribal lingo of Beltway conservatives, this may sound like gibberish. But those inside the conservative subculture invest these buzzwords with deep meaning. “Green eyeshade” is a term of abuse appropriated by the supply-siders to describe Republicans who still cared more about deficit control than cutting taxes. “Growth” and “opportunity” mean tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich, and “class warfare” means any criticism thereof. Ryan’s centrist admirers hear his frequent confessions that both parties have failed as an ideological concession. What he means is that Republicans were insufficiently fanatical in their devotion to cutting taxes for the rich….
In 2001, Ryan led a coterie of conservatives who complained that George W. Bush’s $1.2 trillion tax cut was too small, and too focused on the middle class. In 2003, he lobbied Republicans to pass Bush’s deficit-­financed prescription-drug benefit, which bestowed huge profits on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. In 2005, when Bush campaigned to introduce private accounts into Social Security, Ryan fervently crusaded for the concept. He was the sponsor in the House of a bill to create new private accounts funded entirely by borrowing, with no benefit cuts. Ryan’s plan was so staggeringly profligate, entailing more than $2 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, that even the Bush administration opposed it as “irresponsible.”

The important thing to grasp here is that for all the talk about Paul Ryan being the “adult in the room” who understands the “tough choices” needed to confront the “debt crisis,” everything we know about him suggests that fiscal probity is at best a third-order motive for his proposals to decimate the social safety net. More important to him is that the spending cuts he supports are necessary to finance still more regressive tax cuts, and furthermore, are positive social measures in and of themselves. Like the pirate Ragnar Danneskjold, a character in Ryan’s favorite book Atlas Shrugged, who sinks aid ships as a moral gesture aimed at the “looting” of the successful, Ryan would object to safety net programs even if the federal budget was in surplus:

“It is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big or the health-care plan doesn’t work for this or that policy reason,” Ryan said in 2009. “It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack, and it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on.” Ryan’s philosophical opposition to a government that forces the “makers” to subsidize the “takers”—terms he still employs—is foundational; the policy details are secondary.

This is the sort of talk that gets Ryan regularly in trouble (most notably with the Bishops of his own Catholic Church), which is an indication of how strongly he must believe in it. Yet he manages to maintain his fiscal-hawk street cred and his reputation for gravitas despite all the indications that he’d triple the deficit if necessary to cut taxes for the wealthy and remains in the grip of a philosophy that treats Medicaid beneficiaries as thieves who are morally debasing themselves. It’s quite a crowning achievement.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • dweb on April 30, 2012 10:35 AM:

    Didja ever stop to think that growing the national debt is part of the overall GOP strategy long-term? Of course it is.

    You pass a major drug bill and start two wars and then you cut taxes and what do you get?...a BIG deficit.

    Then you turn around and argue that with a huge debt like that, the only solution is to cut spending for anything and everything you don't -- Social Security, Medicare, regulation, the environment, food stamps, home heating, education.

    And when your opponents point out that the cause of that huge deficit is cutting taxes AND spending on things like endless wars, you scream that they are just "tax and spend liberals."

    Works like a charm every time.

    Ryan is simply the "voice" of the Party with the Plan. His math doesn't add up, but the media rarely bothers to make note of that fact. He's an 'intellectual" and a "wonk" dontcha know!

  • rrk1 on April 30, 2012 10:38 AM:

    Ryan is the obvious VP choice. His ego is probably big enough now so he actually believes he deserves to be a heartbeat away...

  • DAY on April 30, 2012 10:46 AM:

    Ahh, yes- Jack “supply side”Kemp:
    Deficits don’t matter, because”growth, opportunity, and free markets” are the manna from you know where. (Where middle class working folk (AKA Suckers) will pay more taxes and make the debt go away)

    Anyone here old enough to remember Burl Ives singing “ Big Rock Candy Mountain”?

    Oh the buzzin' of the bees
    In the cigarette trees
    Near the soda water fountain
    At the lemonade springs
    Where the bluebird sings
    On the big rock candy mountain

  • RepublicanPointOfView on April 30, 2012 10:58 AM:

    Paul Ryan should be the next vice president!

    The Honorable Congressman Paul Ryan is rightfully acknowledged by the serious people in the journalism world as being an economic heavyweight. All of the serious people understand that Congressman Ryan's economic plans address the real economic problems of our country, which are that:
    - the wealthy do not have enough wealth
    - we have too large and an unsustainable middle class
    - the poor do not pay enough taxes

    I again defy any of you thickheaded liberals to present a valid argument that the Mitt Romney / Paul Ryan economic plans do not address these real economic problems.

    We look forward to a Romney/Ryan ticket and a Romney presidency where the serious economic issues are addressed seriously.

    Besides that, it is damn well overdue that we, the wealthy funding wing of the republican party, have one of our own as president. Especially, one who is not afraid to publicly display his contempt and scorn for the peon classes who are parasites continually attacking the flesh of we job creators.

  • boatboy_srq on April 30, 2012 11:00 AM:


    If running for public office meant automatically resigning from any office one currently held, I'd be all for Romney picking Ryan as Veep candidate. Simplest, fastest way to get him out of Congress and into a position where he could do far less damage.

  • stormskies on April 30, 2012 11:01 AM:

    All this simply comes down to one thing: the glorification of selfishness. In essence that is Ann Rand, and, in essence, it that is pig shit Ryan. And it is this selfishness that 'informs' his 'understanding' of the social doctrines taught by Jesus and the Bible. And when his 'error' is pointed out to him in this regard this pig shit then reverts to 'well, we all have our own ways of understanding the social doctrines of the Bible and Jesus."

    So, of course, the pig shit, and all like him, CAN NEVER BE WRONG.

  • biggerbox on April 30, 2012 11:02 AM:

    It's been pretty clear for a while, to anyone with the math skills of a third-grader, i.e., not most media-droids and pundits, that Ryan's numbers didn't add up, and that it was probably not just accident.

    What is now becoming clear is the extent to which this is an enthusiastically designed feature, and really not a "bug" of his plan.

  • hell's littlest angel on April 30, 2012 11:17 AM:

    Paul Ryan, 2009: Who is John Galt?

    Paul Ryan, 2012: Who is Ayn Rand?

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on April 30, 2012 11:23 AM:

    Don't let Ezra K see this, he'll cry!

  • c u n d gulag on April 30, 2012 12:16 PM:

    “It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals..."

    But it's ok to offend the morality of corporations by giving them tax payer money when they screw-up, and to lighten the tax burdon on those in our country who are the least burdoned - the rich.

    And yes, please, please, PLEASE, make Ryan Mitt's VP pick!
    When they stand on the stage together at their convention, they'll look like the centerpiece of a December-June Gay Wedding Cake!!!

  • Ron Byers on April 30, 2012 12:23 PM:

    Paul Ryan is what happens when we don't have honest or even intelligent journalists. He pitches his budget as an effort to reduce the deficit but if you actually look at his plan, something I doubt many professional journalists have done, he inflicts pain on the least among us immediately, sends the savings to his rich buds in the form of massive tax breaks and doesn't begin to reduce the deficit for 20 years (and then only if one makes magic underpants assumptions.) What the Ryan plan really is is a giant tax reduction for the rich plan being pitched as a deficit reduction plan. Nearly all of the main stream journalists have swallowed Ryan's frame for his plan, hook, line and sinker.

    I don't know if the journalists are stupid or lying shills, or maybe both. They rarely tell the truth about the Ryan Budget. It isn't a budget, or a budget plan, it is a giant tax decrease.

  • Ron Byers on April 30, 2012 12:27 PM:

    I will think Ryan is serious about reducing the deficit when his plan hurts the Republican wealthy.

  • HelpThe99ers on April 30, 2012 12:59 PM:

    I'd love to see Ryan go up against someone like Ezra Klein, or, for that matter, Jared Bernstein, to try to defend his budget positions and show how his math works.

    Red wonk v/ blue wonk. Whose numbers add up?

  • MuddyLee on April 30, 2012 2:21 PM:

    We must attack, attack, attack the disciples of Ayn Rand (like Paul Ryan, Greenspan, Mick Mulvaney) if we are to have any hope of having a decent America in which to live.

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on April 30, 2012 2:44 PM:

    >I'd love to see Ryan go up against someone like Ezra Klein

    Ezra is the ultimate toady to people he deals with in person. Ezra is young and ambitious, and knows how to get ahead in DC.

  • RalfW on April 30, 2012 7:56 PM:

    Well, Ron Byers, I'd say that many journalists are a) lazy and b) paid to misunderstand what it is in the interests of management, owners and advertisers for them to continue to misunderstand.

    I'm luke-warm to the Orenstein-Mann bout of courage over the weekend, but they do diagnose the supine press as a key to the problems of our current GOP run amok.

    They also offer little hope of the press developing a conscience or a spine any time soon.