The question of the day is, “Is he dumb enough to do it?” — he being Paul Ryan and it being running for Speaker of the House. Ryan allegedly is considering his options today.
As Paul Krugman points out in a column and blog post today, Ryan’s strength is that he’s the guy non-Republicans take seriously. But he needs to avoid the Speaker position to maintain that impression.
If Paul Ryan has any sense of self-preservation â€” and that is one thing he surely has â€” he will look for any way possible to avoid becoming Speaker. The hard right is already attacking him, essentially accusing him of not being sufficiently crazy, and theyâ€™re right. On policy substance heâ€™s totally an Ayn Rand-loving, reward-the-rich and punish-the-poor guy, but so are lots of other Republicans; what they want is someone willing to go along with kamikaze tactics, and he isnâ€™t. His fall from grace would be swift.
But if Ryan isnâ€™t distinctive in his political positions, why does he loom so large within his party? The answer is that heâ€™s more or less unique among extreme right-wingers in having the approbation of centrists, especially centrist pundits. That is, heâ€™s a big man within the GOP because people outside seem to approve of him. And itâ€™s important to ask why.
And the reason is …
Mr. Ryan has been very good at gaming the system, at producing glossy documents that look sophisticated if you donâ€™t understand the issues, at creating the false impression that his plans have been vetted by budget experts. This has been enough to convince political writers who donâ€™t know much about policy, but do know what they want to see, that heâ€™s the real deal. (A number of reporters are deeply impressed by the fact that he uses PowerPoint.) He is to fiscal policy what Carly Fiorina was to corporate management: brilliant at self-promotion, hopeless at actually doing the job. But his act has been good enough for media work.
His position within the party, in turn, rests mainly on this outside perception. Mr. Ryan is certainly a hard-line, Ayn Rand-loving and progressive-tax-hating conservative, but no more so than many of his colleagues. If you look at what the people who see him as a savior are saying, they arenâ€™t talking about his following within the party, which isnâ€™t especially passionate. Theyâ€™re talking, instead, about his perceived outside credibility, his status as someone who can stand up to smarty-pants liberals â€” someone who wonâ€™t, says MSNBCâ€™s Joe Scarborough, be intimidated by â€œnegative articles in The New York Times opinions page.â€ (Who knew we had such power?)
It helps that much of the punditocracy suffers from a pathological need to see Democrats and Republicans as equally crazy; this is what passes for “balance” these days.
Ryan is being maligned wholesale on the Crazy Fringe today, not because he’s a con but because he allegedly is soft on immigration. As near as I can tell, his actual voting record makes him an immigration hard-liner. He’s even called for building the damnfool fence and sending little Nicaraguan refugee children back to Central America. But the Whackjobs apparently need to hate him for something, and that’s what they’ve come up with.
The political establishment largely is ignoring this development and promoting Ryan as the man who can bring together the allegedly “centrist” faction of the Republican Party and the teabagger fringe. As Andrew Rosenthal writes, this is basically a “plea for attention from the increasingly irrelevant conservative establishment. ” Those who still take the Republican Party seriously are talking about needing unity in “moving public policy in a conservative direction.”
But, as Rosenthal says, “The Republicans moved way past conservatism long ago.” And going back to Krugman,
To understand Mr. Ryanâ€™s role in our political-media ecosystem, you need to know two things. First, the modern Republican Party is a post-policy enterprise, which doesnâ€™t do real solutions to real problems. Second, pundits and the news media really, really donâ€™t want to face up to that awkward reality.
The Freedom Caucus wants Daniel Webster of Florida, the guy who beat Alan Grayson in 2010 and who has rarely met an excuse for a government shutdown he didn’t like. I’m betting that Ryan will stay on the sidelines and that Webster will end up with the Speaker’s job eventually, once the establishment has bullshitted itself into thinking maybe he’s not that bad. But anything could happen.