Political Animal


August 16, 2012 12:41 PM Has Obama Created A Monster?

By Ed Kilgore

At Ten Miles Square, Ezra Klein has a column up outlining the many ways in which the White House has helped make Paul Ryan a celebrity and the symbol of the congressional GOP—sometimes by praising Ryan, sometimes by attacking him, but always by treating him as his party’s leader.

This all makes for a helpful stroll through the familiar landscape of questions about Barack Obama’s political strategy for 2012. But I can’t say I fully agree with Ezra’s take on the post-election consequences of Ryan’s notoriety as capped by his ascendancy to the national ticket:

Putting the Ryan budget at the center of the 2012 election has the tactical benefit of forcing Republicans to defend an unpopular proposal; more important, it has the long-term strategic benefit of potentially discrediting the Ryan budget as a political document. Prior to Ryan joining the ticket, a Romney loss seemed likely to strengthen the Republican Party’s conservative wing, because the defeat would be blamed on Romney’s moderate past. Now, if the Romney-Ryan ticket loses, it will vindicate skeptics of the party’s rightward shift, potentially strengthening the party’s moderates. That could produce a more cooperative opposition for Obama to work with in a second term.
But if Obama loses, Republicans will have won the presidency with a mandate to enact a deeply conservative agenda. Left to his own devices, Romney might have been a relatively pragmatic and cautious president. Instead, the Obama administration’s three-year effort to enshrine the Ryan budget at the heart of the Republican Party would prove to have been a crucial push toward enacting that budget into law.

On Ezra’s first point, I doubt that any electoral development short of a 1964-sized Democratic landslide will “vindicate skeptics of the party’s rightward drift,” who could all pretty much meet in a phone booth at the moment. Keep in mind that said “drift”—“lurch” might be a more accurate modifier—was immediately preceded by two straight electoral shellackings for a party whose maximum leader, George W. Bush, was the unanimous candidate of movement conservatives in the 2000 cycle, and was being generally described by conservatives as a titanic Bismarckian World Historical Figure as late as 2005. Instead of deciding they’d gone too far with Bush, conservatives decided Bush hadn’t gone far enough with them. It will be far, far easier for them to blame a 2012 defeat, especially if it’s narrow, on Mitt Romney, who has never in his life commanded much love or respect from the ideologues he serially panders to and abandons. Unless Ryan himself screws up egregiously, I think the most common observation you will hear from Republicans after an electoral defeat is that the wrong guy was heading the ticket.

Ezra’s suggestion that Ryan’s presence on the ticket would turn a GOP victory into a mandate for enactment of the Ryan Budget has more merit, but frankly, Republicans don’t need a “mandate” to enact Ryan’s budget if they win the White House and control of both Houses of Congress. They’ve made it abundantly clear they will enact that budget via reconciliation immediately, and would have regardless of the identity of Romney’s running mate. As for the idea that without Ryan’s ascendancy Mitt Romney might have turned into a “pragmatic, cautious” president, Ezra himself uses the key modifier “left to his own devices.” We’ll never, ever know what Mitt would do if “left to his own devices,” because he won’t be. Party conservatives have spent the entire cycle trapping Romney into multiple pledges to do exactly what they want, to the point that he has become exactly what Grover Norquist said he’d represent: a rubber-stamp for a Republican Congress determined to enact the Ryan Budget.

If Obama indeed helped make Paul Ryan the symbolic leader of the GOP, he did little more than clarify what that party actually stood for, to the point where just putting him right there on the ticket made sense. I don’t think there’s much question the strategy boosted Obama’s re-election chances while giving Democrats a very compelling reason to rouse themselves to vote on November 6. Win or lose, the Republicans were going to keep doing what they’ve been doing; the fires of 2010 are warm enough to keep them on the current track through at least another defeat or two, particularly now that they have the internal unity to begin taking down the New Deal and Great Society the first chance they get.

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.


  • TCinLA on August 16, 2012 12:54 PM:

    We're at that point in the campaign that always demonstrates to me the value of having election campaigns like they do in Europe: short and intense. Summer 2008 saw people getting nervous about whether what they knew or thought they knew was right. Now there's actual reason to be scared, with the Republican Steal-The-Voter-ID strategy which really could steal the election, and wondering what we do afterwards (I think if it's really blatant and the Ryan Budget is passed, we could end up in a civil war in a few years).

    There's only one thing to do, it's what the Old Master I used to work for, Willie Brown, always said and did: run like you're ten points down regardless of the polls.

  • gus on August 16, 2012 1:03 PM:

    Paul Ryan is the New John McCain.

    When the RR ticket loses, Ryan will take away McCain’s spot as the default Sunday Chat Show Guest. He’ll go on Saturday Night Live, probably as soon as this fall. Slowly all potentially scary aspects of him awill be rounded off.

    Unless he does royally screw up now.

  • Ron Byers on August 16, 2012 1:04 PM:

    I like Ezra, and agree that Obama has deliberately promoted him as the Republican congressional ideological leader. I mean who wants to do business with Eric Cantor and who can do business with John Boehner.

    That said I don't see much risk to Obama and the Democrats. Ryan and his budget are easy targets. The more people hear about the Ryan budget the less they like it. By putting Ryan on the ticket Romney has assured that everybody is going to hear about the Ryan budget, especially the deep cuts to the social safety net and the deeper cuts to taxes on the wealthy. Not even the Politico crowd is going to be able to paper over the Ryan Budget with Ryan on the ticket.

    No, promoting Paul Ryan is probably going to turn out to be a good thing for Obama and a better thing for Democrats running for Congress.

  • dalloway on August 16, 2012 1:11 PM:

    Maybe the first clue that Romney wasn't going to be serious or pragmatic was that he complied with the wingnuts' order to put Ryan on the ticket!

  • c u n d gulag on August 16, 2012 1:15 PM:

    Two things:
    1. If Mitt won without Ryan, he was never going to be anything but a butt-boy for the extreme right wing. He would have bowed to them, they would have gotten him elected, and he would be paying that back for 4-8 years.

    2. This one might be a tad too 11th Dimensional Chess, but I'm going to throw it our there for discussion:
    I'm not sure that Ryan is ready for Prime-time. Mitt himself doesn't seem like he is.
    Mostly, Ryan has worked with a Republican House, except for 4 of the last 12 years. He's either been on the dominating side, or on the obstructionist, losing, side. He's very Manichean - black v. white.

    Sure, he gives a lot of speeches - at right wing thing thanks.
    And he makes a lot of TV appearances - mostly on FOX or the fawning, non-questioning Sunday gab fests.

    So, by fluffing him, Obama may have been setting him up to be beat down at a later time.
    Remember how Ryan reacted to Obama's criticism? Petulantly - he pouted and whined.

    And now, Ryan's running with a less-than popular Republican Party Presidential candidate.
    He's the real torch-bearer for the base. Mitt is window-dressing for the plutocrats.

    Is Ryan really ready for the national stage?
    The Republicans have bet the house that he is. And maybe, "The House," literally, as well. And the Senate as well.

    We'll see...

  • whatever on August 16, 2012 1:17 PM:

    Ryan or no Ryan, there is no way that the social safety net remains intact if Rmoney is elected.

  • TK421 on August 16, 2012 1:23 PM:

    Do you really think Obama praised Ryan just to get him chosen as VP? And not because he agrees with many of Ryan's proposals? Remember, this is a president who offered cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and who now complains that he doesn't get enough credit for that offer.

  • jjm on August 16, 2012 1:32 PM:

    Re that canard about Obama "offering cuts to SS and Medicare": I only read a single specific account of just where he offered the Medicare cuts to come from and that was in the NYT. It made explicit that Obama offered to cut the something like $170 billion dollars in subsidies to the health insurance companies. Knowing the GOP would reject those cuts.

    He was trying to work with an intransigent House that HATED him and refused to cooperate on anything he proposed; the result was the much lamented 'fiscal cliff' which Barney Frank called one of Obama's cleverest moves because it was agreed on so there would be no more of those specious and harmful 'debt ceiling limit' fights.

    But GOPers always want to taint Obama and paint him with THEIR own brushes.

  • Joe Buck on August 16, 2012 1:51 PM:

    Seniors vote in the largest numbers. If the Democrats can successfully make the case to seniors that Ryan is a threat to Medicare, that may well be the ticket both to taking back the House and re-electing Obama.

    They may have to go to war with the "fact checkers", who apparently are unfamiliar with the riddle popularized by Abraham Lincoln: How many legs does a horse have if you call a tail a leg? The answer, of course, is four; calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one.

    Likewise, Ryan's proposal is to end Medicare. The fact that his replacement program that gives seniors vouchers to buy their own insurance isn't Medicare, even though Ryan proposals to call this new, untried experiment "Medicare".

    Democrats shouldn't use the formulation they've been using lately, that it "ends Medicare as we know it" (echoing the phrase Clinton used for welfare reform). They need to get aggressive, and they can't let up when the Village attacks them.

  • Diane Rodriguez on August 16, 2012 2:00 PM:

    On more than one occasion, President Obama has stated that he thinks his most important asset is persistence. Coupled with his intellect, he carefully plays the long game and is underestimated in this tabloid environment. Winning a 2nd term would neutralize the Ryan budget and relegate him to something less than superstar.
    The Ryan pick also works for Obama. During the campaign, Obama can take advantage of Ryan being a true believer. It is a position that Obama can exploit because it is so clearly ideological and at odds with his world vision. Already the optics for Romney reinforce the fact that his world vision includes only a picture of himself in the oval office. He loved the Ryan plan before Ryan was the VP candidate, now not so much, but he can’t explain why. Romney, in his desperation to appear to be the top of the ticket has doubled down on heavy doses of racism, lies and refusing to be forthcoming about his finances. Ryan has to pay some lip service to Romney’s idiotic ramblings , but it doesn’t seem like personal nasty is his shtick. Romney sees the racism and lies as being “bold” and he will continue that tactic to assert his perceived power. Here’s hoping that more and more people see him for the entitled, asswipe that he is – him and his wife both.

  • T2 on August 16, 2012 2:09 PM:

    Howard Fineman writes a good column on Ryan, saying that far from an economic/policy wonk, Ryan is simply a ladder-climber and hooked on to the TeaParty train as a means to accelerate his climb.
    Now he'll be on the main stage for at least 3 months and everyone will learn about him, just like we learned about an equally ambitious ladder-climber in 2008....in fact, without Palin, Ryan would probably still be rattling around in the lower end of the House.
    MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell was funny today - had a Romney lady on spouting the new "Obama will kill Medicare" meme. If you want to see a definition of a host being run over like a truck by the guest, get a tape of that interview. But I learned something....the Ryan Medicare plan doesn't have anything in it about "vouchers"...according to the spokeswoman. Andrea just sputtered and sputtered and sputtered.

  • Josef K on August 16, 2012 3:32 PM:

    Why all the quibbling? Ryan's signature budget plan is the sort of sadistic plan only a moral monster could possibly conceive, never mind claim as just.

  • Rich on August 16, 2012 4:35 PM:

    Ezra has spent far too much of his young life inside the Beltway and lately has been working for the most braindead major newspaper in the country 9ina country where several once great newspapers have been ruined through mergers and acquisitions. He really needs to see something of the world and start talking, face-to-face with people who could care less about the playground politics behind the real politics. Maybe then, he'll quit writing twaddle like this.

  • bdop4 on August 16, 2012 5:29 PM:

    Ryan's entrance into the race has brought the vast ideological differences between the parties into HD contrast. At this point, you have to be brain dead or living in a cave to be "undecided."

    This is a referendum on the intelligence and compassion of the American electorate and I have no clue as to the outcome.

  • Doug on August 16, 2012 6:49 PM:

    If a "monster" HAS been created, I'd say the Republicans, by adopting the "Ryan Budget" plan, are the ones who have done so. All President Obama has done is shine a spotlight on the monstrosity.
    We're the ones who get to wave the torches and pitchforks, though...