During the long rise of the U.S. conservative movement, every time it appeared a breakthrough victory was in sight, a frustrating defeat occurred that was invariably blamed on circumstances that had nothing to do with the conservative ideology itself. Goldwater lost in 1964 because of national mourning over John F. Kennedy, and LBJ’s diabolocal ability to exploit it. Nixon turned out to be a traitor who very nearly ruined the GOP “brand.” Reagan’s bold plans were cramped by a recession caused by his predecessor. The 1994 “Revolution” was partially coopted by an amoral member of the opposition, and partly destroyed by the personal weaknesses of GOP leaders. And George W. Bush, as we have been told repeatedly since 2008, “betrayed his conservative principles” and thus invited economic and electoral disaster.
Now, many conservatives believe, the great gittin’-up morning is finally here, or will arrive on November 7 when Barack Obama is defeated and Republicans also take over control of both Houses of Congress. And who will their leader be in the long-awaited effort to roll back three-quarters-of-a-century of legislative and judicial “activism” and cultural “relativism” that has all but destroyed the country? Mitt Romney? No, no, a thousand times no! Romney will enable the revolution, because he has no choice to do otherwise, but The Leader’s identity is pretty obviously Paul Ryan.
Ryan’s role in conservative history is nicely underlined in Ryan Lizza’s latest piece on the Wisconsin wonder boy for the New Yorker. It’s been all but forgotten that Ryan was one of the major forces behind George W. Bush’s 2005 Social Security privatization plan, which most non-ideological observers regarded as a terrible squandering of the political capital Bush took out of his 2004 re-election victory. And it’s nearly been forgotten that the quasi-universal acceptance of the Ryan budget by today’s Republicans was not initially a foregone conclusion: by and large, GOPers did not campaign on it at all in 2010, and as recently as last year, most political professionals considered it a toxic swamp of unpopular proposals and a Democratic oppo-research wonderland. But in Lizza’s account, the direct criticism of Ryan in Obama’s big “budget speech” in April of 2011 all but destroyed internal GOP resistance to his budget:
Two days after the speech, despite some desperate appeals by Republican pollsters, Ryan’s plan passed the House of Representatives, 235 to 193. Only four Republicans voted against it. Ryan told me that the class of Republicans elected in 2010 was transformational. “Usually, you get local career politicians who want to be national career politicians,” he said. “They’re more cautious. They’re more risk-averse. They’re more focussed on just reĆ«lection.” He went on, “This crop of people who came up are doctors and dentists and small-business people and roofers and D.A.s. They’re not here for careers—they’re here for causes.”
Whatever benefit the White House had seen in raising Ryan’s profile, his increasing power, and his credibility as the leading authority on conservative fiscal policy, soon made his imprimatur essential for any Republican trying to reach a compromise with Democrats. Ryan helped scuttle three deals on the budget. He had served on the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission but refused to endorse its final proposal, in December, 2010. When deficit negotiations moved from the failed commission to Congress, Ryan stuck with the extreme faction of the G.O.P. caucus, which withheld support from any of the leading bipartisan plans. In the summer of 2011, when a group of Democratic and Republican senators, known as the Gang of Six, produced their own agreement, Ryan’s detailed criticism helped sink it. And, also that summer, during high-level talks between the White House and Republican leaders, Cantor and Ryan reportedly pressured Boehner to reject a potential deal with President Obama.
Ryan had aligned himself with Cantor and the self-proclaimed Young Guns, who made life miserable for Boehner, their nominal leader. They were the most enthusiastic supporters of the Ryan plan, while Boehner had publicly criticized it. Cantor’s aides quietly promoted stories about Boehner’s alleged squishiness on issues dear to conservatives, and encouraged Capitol Hill newspapers to consider the idea that Cantor would one day replace Boehner. As the Republican negotiations with the White House fizzled in the summer of 2011, Barry Jackson, Boehner’s chief of staff and a veteran of the Bush White House and Republican politics, blamed not just Cantor, who in media accounts of the failed deal often plays the role of villain, but Ryan as well.
“That’s what Cantor and Ryan want,” Jackson told a group of Republican congressmen, according to Robert Draper’s recent book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.” “They see a world where it’s Mitch McConnell”—as Senate Majority Leader—“Speaker Cantor, a Republican President, and then Paul Ryan can do whatever he wants to do. It’s not about this year. It’s about getting us to 2012, defeating the President, and Boehner being disgraced.”
In this vision of the very immediate future, Mitt Romney is pretty much an afterthought. His public promises to support Ryan’s budget, combined with the ability to enact it with just 218 House votes and 50 Senate votes (plus a vice-presidential tie-breaker) means that Grover Norquist was exactly right back in February when he brushed aside conservative concerns bout Romney by saying:
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.
So thanks to an improbable—but to “movement conservatives,” providential—alignment of circumstances, including an economic meltdown, the election of a president who represents a visceral cultural threat to millions of Americans, the full unleashing of ideological money, and a bad presidential field that produced a weak candidate who promised his party’s commissars anything they wanted for the opportunity to get into the Oval Office, the Big Moment may have finally arrived. But Lizza is entirely correct. If you want to understand the direction of the country over the next four year in the event of a GOP victory, forget about Romney. Pay attention to Ryan.
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