Thank you, Jonathan Chait, for this awesome NYMag article telling us how to count the ways Paul Ryan is the Great American Hero. What would I have ever done without being enlightened in such an obsequious way, beginning with the title: The Legendary Paul Ryan?
Legendary, really? Legendary in the way that Lizzie Borden is legendary, perhaps? Alas, no. Take this circle jerk, extraordinaire:
To find a parallel to the way Ryan has so thoroughly seized control of the Republican agenda and identity, you have to go back at least to Gingrich in his nineties heyday, or possibly to Reagan. Yet Gingrich and Reagan rose to the national scene while cultivating an image as radicals—it was their battle scars, inflicted by the mainstream political Establishment, that lent them the credibility to speak for the conservative base. Ryan, by contrast, has achieved something much stranger: He has ascended to his present position aloft a chorus of acclaim from the corners of the Establishment that once greeted Gingrich and Reagan with loathing. He is the only politician revered as much by the mainstream media as by the tea party. By some measure, he’s the most popular guy in Washington.
Pardon me while I knock back a couple of Maalox. I'm certain our Founding Fathers worried on a daily basis about whether newspapers pro and con "revered" them, aren't you? This is the stuff of Villager politics. Forget what politicians stand for as long as they're "revered" by the media covering them. Popularity, yay!
And then there's the self-effacing "I'm not ambitious at all, no sir!" claim that Chait reinforces:
One trope that has marked Ryan’s media coverage from the outset is that he is consistently described as lacking ambition. It’s a sharp contrast with fellow Republican Eric Cantor, to whom the adjective “ambitious” is affixed like a tattoo. Ryan says, and many political reporters believe, that he is immune to the political concerns that distract his colleagues. He “has a level of disdain for the sort of rank political calculations required of people who want to climb the electoral ladder,” explains the Washington Post. Here is a telling description from Politico: “Of the partisan political game, Ryan confessed, ‘It’s not my natural tendency. I’m a policy guy.’ ” The operative word here is “confessed.”
Because wonks lack ambition? This would be why Ryan has abandoned St. Ayn Rand in recent days, eschewing her "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" philosophy for a kinder, gentler piety that "disagrees" with Catholic bishops and pretends to be a bipartisan kind of guy who gets along with everyone! Of course he's not ambitious. Jon Chait has told you so.
Pass the stronger antacids, because now we move to the history rewrite.
The single moment that firmly established Ryan’s control over the GOP came in February 2010. Obama, reeling from Scott Brown’s victory in a special election that threatened to halt health-care reform, convened a free-floating health-care discussion at the Blair House with leaders from both parties. Republicans feared it was a trap to make them look closed-minded but didn’t dare boycott the proceedings. They tapped Ryan as their debate leader, and, politely but aggressively, he launched a detailed attack on Obama’s bill, describing it as a kind of accounting fraud. Conservatives were ecstatic at the spectacle.
Here's are Paul Ryan's remarks at the health care summit. They contain the usual attacks on Medicare, the claim of double-credit accounting, and the woeful cry that Medicare will be broke, along with the usual pearl-clutching over the doc fix and other well-worn Republican memes. Yes, Ryan did it with fighting words. Big deal, someone had to. And as to who was ecstatic and who wasn't? I suppose it depends on who you ask. I watched that entire summit, beginning to end, and Paul Ryan's moments were not memorable, though Senators John Barasso and Tom Coburn linger as the ones dominating the Republican side of things. But hey, I'm just a health care wonk. Chait is a Villager, so I'm certain he must be right, even though nothing really came out of that summit and the law passed as it was proposed, via reconciliation.
Toward the end of the article, a bit of criticism finally breaks through, but I submit it's too little too late, and doesn't come near to undoing the deification process Chait began in earlier paragraphs. Wrapping everything up in a tight little bow toward the end when he points to an interview where the interviewer randomly points out differences between today's Paul Ryan and yesterday's, Chait shows us all exactly why we cannot have nice things, and possibly cannot have a democracy as long as the Villagers control the narrative.
Put your fawning antennae up, please:
The banks lobbied fiercely to protect their gravy train. Among the staunchest advocates of those government-subsidized banks was … Paul Ryan, who fought to protect bank subsidies that many of his fellow Republicans deemed too outrageous to defend. In 2009, Obama finally eliminated the guaranteed-lending racket. It could save the government an estimated $62 billion, according to the CBO.
Not everything in Ryan’s career, and possibly nothing at all, is quite so undeniably venal. You could pluck any other single example out of Ryan’s long history of strident conservatism and he would be able to defend it, at the very least, on ideological grounds. A tax cut for the rich, a hike in military spending—all those could be explained as a blow for the cause of Reaganism. This was an almost astonishingly unlucky break, an instance where he lacked even ideological cover—standing up for higher spending at the behest of a powerful lobby lacking any plausible rationale for its subsidy.
Oh noes, really? How unlucky for Paul Ryan, that a reporter would illuminate his hypocrisy and possibly even report on it! Fear not, gentle readers.
At the moment the page opened to that unfortunate item, Ryan’s heart must have stopped. Here was a reporter trying to cast him as a movie-hero outsider, and he was performing on cue. Yet the book opened to a page that, cruelly, just happened to expose the gap between Ryan’s image and the reality more clearly than anything else possibly could have.
Ryan probably knew, even in that split second, that he stood little chance of exposure. (The overlap between television news reporters and people with a detailed understanding of the federal budget is quite small.) Yet a lesser politician might have panicked, or hesitated, or possibly tried to flip to a different page. In that moment, Ryan revealed the qualities that have propelled him to his current position. As cool as can be, and as winsome as ever, he said, “This is perfect.”
The deification process begins. It begins because Villagers don't have a detailed understanding of the topics they report on, and it continues because people like Jon Chait paint Paul Ryan in rosy shades like a Thomas Kinkade scene with bluebirds and daisies alongside the river, with Ryan standing in light emanating from God himself, anointing him as the Chosen One.
Let's just whitewash the truth about Paul Ryan because he gives the impression that he's earnest and wonky. It doesn't make a damn bit of difference that his true talent is set in his ability to state lies as fact with a pitch-perfect level of unwarranted certitude. Just as the Villagers are reluctant to call Mitt Romney a liar even when he lies with alacrity, so too are they unwilling to tell the truth about Paul Ryan.
It would wreck their idealized portrait of the Great American Budget Hero. We can't have that, can we?
This is Stage One in the deification process. If Ryan pushes his budget through, he'll have his miracle -- stage two. The Villagers will rejoice, and lift him to the third stage: full sainthood, with the full faith and blessing of writers like Chait, who also can't seem to master the facts in an article of this length.
But beware, Villagers and Paul Ryan. Rob Zerban is out there, armed with the truth.
Update: Mr. Chait has responded, in a post entitled Brave Leftie Blogger Exposes My Ryan Suckup. I am accused of focus on the sidebars. Perhaps.
Clearly we are talking past each other. Let me try and make my point without the sarcasm of my original post, to see if we can perhaps communicate on some more basic level.
Repeating myths without dispelling them, even with sarcasm buried in the text, is still repeating myths. As I said in a comment on this post, it doesn't take 5000 words to paint Paul Ryan as the disingenuous, soul-sucking liar that he is. Start with that and the rest of it takes on a different tone. Now perhaps that is too simple for the regular Chait/NYMag readers, but was the article intended for an insular audience or a wider one? If the former, then the Villager term sticks. If the latter, then this West Coast reader found herself mired in the mythical Paul Ryan for pages before she found the real one, and by the time she did, the myth was the larger image.
So that I'm clear here, what I found objectionable about the article was that Chait's criticism was lost amid repetitive myths which were repeated for well over five pages. Examples include characterizing Ryan as the "debate leader" in the health care debate (he wasn't), characterizing him as "the most popular guy in Washington" (by some measures?), or stating that he's "seized control of the Republican agenda and identity" without at least asking the question about whether he seized it or simply rode the coattails of his John Birch Society neighbors.
Slam the reader, if you must, but I was always taught that when one writes, they should write with readers in mind. Even Chait admits the ambiguity of his original piece:
What makes Karoli’s piece so compelling is that it is oddly … convincing. To be sure, pretty much the entire world has interpreted my story as a piece of criticism of Ryan. And yet, applying a few different assumptions, added to a certain obtuse reading style, you can just as easily read my piece the other way.
Obtuse? Or simply tired of seeing the same myths trotted out without challenge? You decide.
Update to the update: Since there still seems to be some confusion about what I wrote in my original post and the update, I'll clarify further: I agree that Chait's meta point about Ryan getting a pass from the media exists within the body of the article and is spot-on. I still say it's buried so deeply and so far into the article that the point is lost to any reader who is unfamiliar with Chait's body of work. At least, that's my opinion and where my reaction came from. I am, as I said, tired of seeing the "serious Paul Ryan" portrayals dance across my desktop on a near-daily basis from high-profile names.