Among the more popular memes Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate has prompted is the notion that Ryan's selection will elevate the tone of the presidential campaign, auguring a serious-minded debate between Republicans and Democrats about substantive and opposing visions of the role of government in American life.
This notion -- expressed by commentators from across the political spectrum -- is wishful thinking in the extreme. Romney did not choose Ryan in order to turn this campaign into a deep philosophical conversation. Romney surely does believe that the Ryan selection will help convince national political media that Ryan's presence on the ticket shows that Mitt Romney is himself committed to a serious debate about the issues. Given that so many Beltway pundits love Ryan -- nothing excites them quite like a rich guy lecturing to ordinary Americans that they've had it too good these past few decades, especially when he can sprinkle in a few numbers -- the gambit has some logic to it. But convincing the media that, because you picked Paul Ryan, you mean to engage your political opponent in a high-minded battle of ideas is not the same as actually doing so.
Mitt Romney's campaign has featured one whopper after another. Among the more egregious untruths he's spouted: that Obama has been apologizing on behalf of America around the world, a total fabrication; repeated falsehoods about Obamacare; his ridiculous and obvious race-baiting attacks on the President for allegedly eliminating the work requirements in welfare; the claim that Obama has sued to block service personnel from voting early in Ohio; and his ridiculous attack on Obama's "you didn't build that" line to argue that Obama has insulted all small business owners.
So how does Paul Ryan improve this picture? Is he going to bring some truth serum for the guy who just asked him to join the ticket? Please. What he brings is a now well-developed ability to dupe people into believing that he's a courageous truth-teller who's "serious" about deficit reduction and making the hard choices. In reality, Ryan is no such thing, as has been amply demonstrated time and again. The first Ryan budget to pass the House, in 2011, would have exploded the national debt and failed to bring the budget into balance for half a century. In the meantime, it proposed to gut Medicaid, undermine Medicare and would result in the dismantling of many of the remaining functions of government, all in order to give a gargantuan tax break to rich people (Mitt Romney would have paid an effective tax rate of less than one percent on his $21 million income in 2010 under that version of Ryan's budget).
Ryan had to engage in quite a bit of chicanery to hide the true costs of his plan, but that budget was such an obvious embarrassment and potential political disaster that Ryan re-wrote it. The new and improved budget, which passed the House this year, has many of the same extreme proposals in the 2011 budget, but with a modification of the Medicare reform scheme and a reversal on repeal of capital gains tax cuts. It still only achieves its alleged goal of balancing the budget by insisting that it will close loopholes, not a single one of which Ryan will actually name (he and Romney are peas in a pod in this respect). Ryan, incidentally, is also a climate change denier and it's a remarkable fact about our political landscape today that you can be deemed "serious" when, on an issue of absolutely vital importance for America and the world, you can shrink from actual difficult decisions by simply being a science rejectionist (And can we please clear this up now: rich guys who think they deserve a tax break while everyone else bears the cost are not making "hard choices").
Since Ryan's integrity on budget writing is questionable at best -- a now three-decade old tradition in the Republican Party -- who shares Romney's pro-plutocratic worldview, it's hard to see how Ryan elevates the Romney campaign. And if he doesn't do that, how does he lend gravitas and seriousness to the debate between Romney and Obama? Don't misunderstand me -- Obama himself is not exactly running a high-minded campaign. But the valid criticisms of the President's economic record include his inadequate response to the banksters' extortionate leverage over the economy, his equivocation and miscalculation over the necessary size of the stimulus and his woeful approach to the mortgage crisis. Ryan will, of course, primarily attack Obama as a tax-happy, big government liberal who's hostile to business. In other words, he isn't going to stray substantially from Romney's through-the-looking-glass caricature of Obama's record. He's only going to reinforce the already-ridiculous terms of political debate in America, one in which a party of pro-rich economic extremists paints its opponents as a far-left cabal when, in reality, that supposedly far-left cabal is a largely compromised agglomeration of pro-business office-holders.
I'm leaving to the side many other important issues about which we're also not having a meaningful conversation, including the size and scope of the national security state and the ongoing erosion of civil liberties, in which the presumptively anti big government Paul Ryan has been an eager participant. Those issues are off the table because of a depressing consensus among elites in both political parties. But a debate about the role of government in economic life is the realm in which Ryan is presumed to be poised to make a difference, hence my focus on those particular issues.
Contrary to his reputation, Ryan doesn't actually have the guts to admit what he really wants to do -- which is to transfer wealth from ordinary Americans to the already-wealthy. That's why he's been dodgy -- though not as dodgy as Romney -- about how he's actually going to make all his numbers work. Because if he showed all of his work in detail, his budget plans would likely be more reviled than they already are. So, instead, he's couched his vision in the language of deficit reduction and hard choices, phrases that serve as narcotics to much of the mainstream political media, but fundamentally misrepresent what he and Romney really believe - that they and their pals are better than you and government policy should reflect that fact. To the extent that Ryan has a provable philosophy of government, that's it. And it's not exactly good fodder for the kind of exploration of the nature of our political and economic system that we could really use.