TAMPA, Fla. -- Paul Ryan's rise to national prominence, capped by his Republican convention speech on Wednesday night, is a major victory for the party's conservative base. But it is a particular coup for one particular element of that base. If Ronald Reagan was a victory for grassroots conservative activists and George W. Bush was a win for evangelicals, Paul Ryan stands for the Wall Street Journal editorial page wing of the party.
The Journal editorial page is, more than anything in Washington, the key to understanding the Wisconsin congressman's politics. Like Ryan, the page is unabashedly right-wing, driven by its love of fiscal conservatism and Reagan-style supply-side economics. When it comes to social issues, the editorial page and Ryan follow conservative dogma, but clearly don't have their heart in it.
Both Ryan and the Journal, the largest U.S. newspaper, also embrace a certain brand of intellectualism. Their language isn't on the level of economics professors, but Ryan and the Journal are able to sound cerebral compared with the chatter that passes for standard political discourse.
"I think they recognized that he is an intellectual powerhouse who is very good at taking a message to the electorate," one former Ryan aide told The Huffington Post, when asked why he thought the editorial page and the congressman mesh so well.
Ryan is not an economist -- he has a bachelor's degree in political science and economics from Miami University of Ohio -- but he can play one on TV. The Journal editorial page plays one in print. The page's top editor, Paul Gigot, is a Dartmouth government major. Of the four editors and 13 members of the editorial board, none has a doctorate in economics, according to their biographies on the newspaper's website. The closest are Stephen Moore, who holds a master's degree in economics, and Bret Stephens, who attended the London School of Economics, which at least has the field in its name.
The dearth of economists working on the Journal's editorial page wouldn't be noteworthy if it didn't hold itself out to be, just as Ryan does, the functional equivalent of an economics expert. Ryan and the Journal use that authority to discredit what Ryan calls "sugar-high economics," the Keynesian tradition holding that when the economy sags, the government can quicken a recovery through deficit spending.
Arthur Brooks, an economist and president of the American Enterprise Institute who knows both Gigot and Ryan, said that activists of Ryan's generation, who formed their political consciousness during the Reagan years, are steeped in free-market economics.
"If you look at politics back in the '70s, almost no politicians had any microeconomic sense at all. After 1980, there was a microeconomic revolution. Probably the most intellectually enduring impact of the Reagan administration was that you couldn't get anything done if you didn't understand supply and demand," Brooks told HuffPost. "Paul is the economics generation."
It's OK, Brooks said, that they don't have doctorates. "He's done a lot of individual study. He knows a lot of the literature. I mean, he's not reading the American Economic Review and going to the meetings, but I can talk to him about some of the canonical works of literature and he's read them," Brooks said. "What does it mean to be an economist? It means a lot less than it used to. It doesn't even require the formal credential that it did at one point."
Ryan also uses his detailed knowledge of policy and economics to avoid answering tough questions. "I don't want to get wonky on you," he told Brit Hume, when the Fox News host pressed him on what specific deductions he would eliminate to pay for his tax cuts and when exactly his budget plan would balance.
Despite Ryan's rejection of Keynesianism today, he regularly voted for huge amounts of deficit spending during the George W. Bush years and strongly backed deficit spending as a stimulus during a recession a decade ago.
In 2002, Ryan laid out a cogent argument on behalf of stimulus spending being requested by President Bush. "What we're trying to accomplish today with the passage of this third stimulus package is to create jobs and help the unemployed," he said. "We've got to get the engine of economic growth growing again because we now know, because of recession, we don't have the revenues that we wanted to, we don't have the revenues we need, to fix Medicare, to fix Social Security, to fix these issues. We've got to get Americans back to work. Then the surpluses come back, then the jobs come back. That is the constructive answer we're trying to accomplish here on, yes, a bipartisan basis. I urge members to drop the demagoguery and to pass this bill to help us work together to get the American people back to work and help those people who've lost their jobs."
People who know Gigot and Ryan say that Ryan worked harder on developing a relationship with Gigot than with anyone else in Washington -- which says much, given Ryan's penchant for collecting mentors, including former Sen. Sam Brownback, former New York Rep. Jack Kemp, House Speaker John Boehner and Mitt Romney. (Ryan was famously voted "Biggest Brown Noser" in high school.)
Gigot also hails from Wisconsin and is not a heavy presence on the conservative social scene, preferring a more anonymous, behind-the-scenes role. He took over the Journal's editorial page in 2001 and has helped build it into a beacon for the intellectual right. Through a spokesperson, he declined to comment for this story.
Through the editorial page, Gigot lobbied Romney hard to add Ryan to the ticket. Before Ryan shared his "Roadmap for America's Future" with GOP leadership, he first went over it with Gigot. The "Roadmap" became the controversial Ryan budget plan that would end Medicare as a defined benefit. Republican leaders were reluctant to include the highly unpopular Medicare reform in the budget in 2009, say aides familiar with the deliberations, but Ryan told them he couldn't get his budget to balance in any reasonable amount of time without it.
As Politico noted earlier in an expansive look at his relationship with the conservative media, Ryan's name has appeared in the Journal's opinion pages 190 times since Election Day 2008. He writes for the paper frequently enough that he could be listed as a contributing editor.
A GOP aide close to Ryan said that Ryan and the Journal are close, but noted he is also beloved by other conservative media outlets. "I think that's a fair statement in a lot of ways," he said. "They all love him. I don't think it's mutually exclusive."
Conservatives are looking forward to putting their well-schooled economics man up against Vice President Joe Biden in the coming debate.
"He's very intellectually curious. He wants to be more virtuosic, given the fact that he needs to use these tools," Brooks said. "That's why he's so potent. That's why he's so incredibly effective. It's going to be pretty funny watching him and Biden debate economics. I think probably liberals are not savoring that specter."
Sam Stein contributed reporting.
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