If there's one word that's become associated with Wisconsin Representative and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan over his long tenure in Washington, D.C., it is "serious." Ryan is credited, up and down, with being a "serious" man. His reputation for seriousness precedes him in every fresh encounter on Capitol Hill and every booking on Sunday morning's political chat shows. And more amazingly, that reputation lingers long after those encounters have ended, despite each new pile of evidence to the contrary. He's as pure a product as the Beltway Bubble has ever produced.
A no less Serious man than Erskine Bowles has deemed Ryan worthy. "I'm telling you, this guy is amazing. I always thought I was okay with arithmetic. This guy can run circles around me, and he is honest, he is straightforward, he is sincere, and the budget he came forward with is just like Paul Ryan: It is a sensible, straight-forward, honest, serious budget, and it cut the budget deficit, just like we did, by $4 trillion," said the co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles commission, a panel so deadly serious that its mission was not even undermined by its other chair's repeated references to the tits on milk cows, the way kids wear pants today, or whatever else poured forth from Alan Simpson's mouth.
Ryan the Serious is so serious, in fact, that Bowles didn't risk offending by mentioning the needlesome fact that Ryan voted against Simpson-Bowles, dooming it to failure. Seriously. More on that in a minute.
But as the above example shows, Ryan has managed to establish this reputation and earn a disproportionate share of forgiveness by doing a lot of things right. For example, he is rare among congresscritters in that he does not behave like a jackass, and steers well clear of the sorts of behaviors that his colleagues evince on a regular basis. You won't catch Ryan sending out tweets that read as if a small child has smashed a Blackberry into pulp, a la Chuck Grassley. He's kind and self-effacing, and he presents himself humbly for approval. Unlike, say, Chuck Schumer, you don't get the sense that you're putting your life in any particular peril if you accidentally find yourself between him and an available teevee camera. And as so many of his colleagues -- Michele Bachmann and Allen West come immediately to mind -- earn attention by feeding the "What did he/she just say?" outrage machine, Ryan keeps to his quiet, wonky knitting. He raises his hand, waits to be called upon, has read the morning's lesson plan.
And if nothing else, people know precisely where Ryan stands. He's engineered the GOP's long-term fiscal gameplan and has positioned himself as its exclusive representative -- from a marketing standpoint, he's the creator, steward and face of the brand. And he's earned important buy-in: Let's recall that Grover Norquist sees the 2012 presidential contest as a battle to install Romney as Ryan's amanuensis: "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 ... Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States." This is the strength Ryan brings to the Romney ticket -- he dispels the fear that Romney, left to his own devices, might lapse back into his moderate tendencies. Ryan is as planted as Romney is malleable. When you distance yourself from Ryan -- or run from him, as more than a few downticket GOP strivers are already doing -- there's no threat that he's going to pop up in the bushes behind you.
Ryan also has charts. And graphs. Which would be enough to make him serious without any of the other stuff. (And they're not charts about carbon emissions and surface temperatures, which could threaten one's serious credentials in Washington by branding one an earthy crusader.)
But if you've done any significant amount of time inside the Beltway, you've probably learned that the Bubble People have an altogether different set of standards for what qualifies as "serious." And if you're smart, you've learned to cross to the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue when you see "serious" people strolling up the sidewalk. Here in the Bubble, "serious" people thought that Iraq was an existential threat to civilization, and that (despite the fact that they were such an astounding danger!) taking them out would be a quick, orderly, cheap venture -- a few short weeks of combat followed by Paul Bremer copping the Usain Bolt pose at Sahat Al Tahrir while the locals swooned.
People who want to be thought of as Serious learn that what the Bubble People want is for someone to reaffirm their beliefs. Here in Washington, the Bubble People live in a constant state of deficit panic. They consider things like limiting the benefits packages of career civil servants to be a "lofty goal." Elizabeth Warren's campaign to alert consumers to the "tricks and traps" found in the fine print of credit card contracts and loan agreements is deemed to be "simplistic and hyperbolic." And those who would advocate for the end of New Deal entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, are deemed to be "serious," because they are making "the tough choices."
It does take a certain amount of courage to advocate whole-heartedly to strip what few benefits the working class derives from the government and leave them with nothing, but it's hardly a "tough choice" to hurt vulnerable people who've no clout in Washington at the urging of those who do -- and who typically pay area homeless a meager allowance to stand in line for them ahead of congressional hearings.
At the risk of self-plagiarizing, let's run down what we know about Ryan's collection of Tough Choices. Ryan claims, as Romney recently has, that he can affect growth by closing loopholes, but he has never specified which loopholes, and as we're learning from the Tax Policy Center, there aren't enough loopholes to close to achieve the desired ends. (Hence, you're stuck raising taxes on the middle class, or scuppering the entire government, or both.)
His plan to balance the budget is to not balance the budget. He's considered a "deficit hawk" -- but as he's put his rubber stamp on all of the Bush administration's budget-busting initiatives, that's a lot like calling an arsonist a fire-fighter. As Jacob Weisberg learned, to some chagrin, Ryan's budget plan "projects an absurd future, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in which all discretionary spending, now around 12 percent of GDP, shrinks to 3 percent of GDP by 2050."
Beyond that, of course, no one has any idea what programs Ryan would eliminate to achieve his "3 percent of GDP" discretionary budget dystopia. That's probably because the correct answer to the question is "nearly everything" and providing that answer would probably lead to voters outside of the goldbug/tenther set to decide that he is insane.
But in Washington, Ryan gets a pass for never specifying what he would do. This leaves it to others to attempt to game out what might be brought about by his roadmap. Typically, they assume that Ryan's budget plan will reflect Ryan's various opinions on those government programs that he doesn't favor, so they might choose to zero out agencies like the EPA, or federally funded education programs, or the National Park Service. Or they may simply take Ryan's budget cuts and apply them in some sort of uniform fashion, and show the hits that various government services might take if Ryan's cuts were applied proportionally across the board.
When this happens, Ryan complains that his opponents are imputing things that he has never said. The Beltway media takes his side. His opponents never get a pass. That's the benefit of being thought of as a Serious man.
Of course, that's only one of the many ways Ryan has gotten a pass. As much as the Beltway media lionizes the "Chairman's Mark" that was produced by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles during their work on the "Simpson-Bowles Committee," the failure to get their supposedly meaningful deficit reduction plan to Congress, and thus to the president's desk, is widely seen as President Obama's fault.
In the Beltway Bubble's popular scenario, Obama "abandoned" a product that was never produced. After the Simpson-Bowles Commission foundered, Ryan reacted to criticism of his own plan by accusing the president of using "a rhetorical broadside to distract from the fact the president isn't proposing solutions." But Obama was the one who revived the entire idea of a deficit commission after the Senate's legislative attempt at creating one was undone by the GOP co-sponsors bailing on the idea. And it's not beyond the realm of reason that Obama would have endorsed the plan that the Commission was steaming toward, provided it tinkered with its prescriptions for Social Security. After all, as National Economic Council director Gene Sperling noted, Simpson-Bowles was set on levels of revenue-raising more generous than what Obama himself proposed. Sperling made the distinction between Ryan's roadmap and the cogitations of the Simpson-Bowles committee fairly legible:
"His budget has become the poster child for an extreme budget that puts all the burden on the middle class and the most vulnerable," Sperling said.
"It includes no revenue, when the core of Bowles-Simpson was a balance of revenue and entitlements savings, and a principle that you don't put much burden at all on the most vulnerable in our society."
Unfortunately for Sperling, the fact that Simpson-Bowles strove to not "put much burden at all on the most vulnerable in our society" is pretty much why it's deemed to be less legendary here inside the Bubble. These choices, they were not "tough" enough. Neither were the choices laid out in the "Grand Bargain" that was almost made between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. Let's take care to remember what this "Grand Bargain" entailed:
Obama had proposed to Republicans a "grand bargain" that accomplished a host of individual things that are unpopular on their own, but that just might pass as a huge package jammed through Congress with default looming. Obama offered to put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts on the table in exchange for a tax hike of roughly $100 billion per year over 10 years. Meanwhile, government spending would be cut by roughly three times that amount. It's no small irony that the party's dogmatic opposition to tax increases is costing the GOP its best opportunity to roll back social programs it has long targeted.
Republicans are now banking on a smaller deficit reduction deal that would still make major cuts, somewhere in the range of $2 trillion.
What was Ryan's role in all of this? The New York Times reported today that he was behind the scuttling of the deal:
Mr. Ryan's enormous influence was apparent last summer when Representative Eric Cantor, the second most powerful House Republican, told Mr. Obama during negotiations over an attempted bipartisan "grand bargain" that Mr. Ryan disliked its policy and was concerned that a deal would pave the way for Mr. Obama's easy re-election, according to a Democrat and a Republican who were briefed on the conversation.
Now, one might as well note that both Cantor and Boehner have denied the claims made by the Times' sources. But there's a larger point to be made here. That "Grand Bargain?" It was offered, and very nearly accepted. And yet the media has completely spaced on this, to the extent that Obama's role as a Grand Bargainer -- in which he signed onto increasing Medicare's eligibility age, among other things -- is consistently denied. Yet Ryan's plan, with all its undefined choices about where the budget axe is to fall -- the details of which, if they exist al all, remain locked with Ryan's cranium -- gets the credit for being the "serious" one.
All of the past benefits of the doubt that Ryan has received are going to serve him in good stead now that he's been selected to provide Mitt Romney with the core identity and policy specifics that Romney was unable or unwilling to provide himself. And already the media has proclaimed how "serious" and "brave" the political conversation to come will certainly be, now that Ryan's here to ensure it.
This is, in some ways, a fair assessment. To have a legitimate debate on the long-term policy direction of the nation, it surely helps to have Ryan in the mix, full-throatedly endorsing his vision of the future, even if its painted with the broadest brush. In turn, the Obama campaign will have ample opportunity to clarify its own. There's tremendous potential now for a debate to draw palpable lines and make clear contrasts between the two major party candidates.
But it comes at a cost: It means that very little time will be spent on the near-term economic crisis -- its rampant unemployment catastrophe, its continually unfolding foreclosure emergency -- or the widespread suffering that America is enduring. Yes, there will be sops to the current disaster: Romney will promise a brighter future ahead, Obama will suggest his opponents mean to return to the past. But contending directly with the present will likely be avoided in any way, save in the abstract. As far as the two competitors are concerned, the present-day suffering only speaks to whether or not one of them deserves to be president.
This is the biggest gift that Ryan has given the Bubble People. He's infused the race with a set of notions that extend to everyone a permission to look past and gloss over our present calamitous circumstances, and to do so with the assurance that they are really working hard to contend with all the 'substance-like substance' that Ryan brings to the race. To be sure, the Beltway Bubble media cut and run from the American people and their lingering suffering a long time ago. There's no currency, after all, in having access to poor people. Ryan's entry into the race, however, allows them to feel just as Serious and as Brave and as Tough as he is. As opposed to feeling like failed cowards. For that, their gratitude to Ryan will be fulsome, in every sense of the word.
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]
This post has been updated throughout to refine points about the so-called Grand Bargain, the Simpson-Bowles Commission and comments on the GOP candidate from Grover Norquist.