Will Paul Ryan Get Found Out?

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Tomasky

In the coming veep smackdown, Joe Biden will be gunning for the right's boy wonder.

Mitt Romney sure did what he needed to do in last week's debate. He ran rings around the president, who looked half the time like he was barely interested in being there. A number of--no, most of--Romney's assertions about his plans were false or misleading. But Barack Obama failed utterly to rebut them. Those 90 minutes made it a new race.

This week, the spotlight turns to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, who square off Thursday. We know what Biden is capable of, for good and for ill. His inexplicable comment last week that the middle class has been "buried" for the last four years was seized on by Romney in his very first answer at the debate. But Biden has been around the block a hundred times, and he's capable of passion and intelligence and something that completely eluded Obama last Wednesday--the memorable soundbite ("Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive; any questions?").

So the focus will really be on Ryan, the neophyte to the big stage, the arch-conservative budget hawk whom Romney put on the ticket to please the Republicans' fire-breathing base (and probably some rich donors). You know the basic story: he's the Republicans' wonk, the guy with the numbers, the one who dazzles his colleagues at caucus meetings with impressive-sounding budgetary terms they don't know. This body of knowledge has led his GOP colleagues, and more importantly the media, to give him a pass on the fact that his numbers don't really add up, and that he does things like tear into Obama for not embracing the Simpson-Bowles budget recommendations when he himself voted against them.

All this has made him the GOP's ideological leader--the devotee of Ayn Rand's "objectivist" theory of selfishness, of the makers and the takers, who once said he got into politics because of Rand, which is sort of the moral equivalent of being inspired to go into the energy business by Enron. Ryan embodies--he is--ideological conservatism unleashed. Romney embodies an establishment conservatism of a type that's been around for a long time, although it too is more extreme than it once was. Far-right figures like Michele Bachmann and other Tea Party players are ideological in a sense, though they're more right-wing evangelical populist. But Ryan is all ideology, like an old Communist Party theoretician, matching Randian theory to party praxis, as the Marxists used to say.

Newt Gingrich fancied himself such a figure, with his highfalutin references to the Punic Wars and such. But his mind is too undisciplined. Ryan, though, is all business. He absorbed an interpretation of the world from Rand and from ultra-conservative Catholic teaching (an irresolvable paradox, since Rand thought religious people were complete morons). He's taken the steps to put it in place, learning the enemy's tricks and lingo. It's usually liberals who bother to become budget experts, because it's liberals who want to protect and expand domestic programs. Ryan learned the language to destroy them.

When Romney tapped him, the right hailed him as a brilliant choice and clear plus who'd vault the ticket skyward. "Change is now on the side of the Republicans!" thundered conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer on Aug. 11, the day Ryan was tabbed.

Well, so far, the main change Ryan has stood for has been a change in his reputation for the worse. And the only vaulting he's been doing has been earthward. A poll came out last week (the day before the debate) showing Obama leading Romney by 11 points in Wisconsin, Ryan's home state, the one his presence on the ticket was supposed to return to the GOP column for the first time since 1984. We don't yet know how dramatically last week's debate shifted the dynamic, but 11 is a lot of points to make up in a month.

Can Ryan, in his second big moment on the national stage, keep up the head of steam that Romney built up with his performance? …