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The New Narrative of Paul Ryan

Date posted: Thursday, August 16, 2012

How will the media brand him?

Photograph via Racked

Photograph via Racked

For a brief moment, the country was united. For a nanosecond, a politician had broken through the partisan divide. The politician was Paul Ryan, whose vice-presidency nomination had both sides of the aisle, left and right, nodding in agreement on a feeling, and the feeling was: Wooh!

Conservatives loved the pick. Liberals loved the pick. Self-righteous centrists were pleased that the campaign would actually be about issues. (If you are confused, since inequality and health care and the economic downturn seem like “issues,” remember that for centrists, an “issue” is restricted to any matter relating to our long-term budget deficit.) And the media was there to focus on what was really important.

Alas, the good times—as always—did not last. By Sunday morning, the national spirit of unity had vanished, with Politico reporting that conservatives were angsty that Paul Ryan actually might not have been an excellent choice. Where there is angst, it will soon be followed by overaggressive statements meant to preempt any sort of unwanted attack, and these came at a campaign rally yesterday, when Mitt Romney said, in the wake of Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff “chains” remark, “Mr. President, take your campaign of division, anger and hate back to Chicago.” Jon Stewart noted the absurdity of following “a plea for national unity by insulting a major city within that nation,” but it was reminiscent of an interview Ryan gave in June, in which he both complained that Obama caricatured his opponents and caricatured Obama’s views.

Democrats, meanwhile, have kept right on doing what they were doing, which was savaging Ryan for the cuts in his budget plan. (I noted in early April that it was a risk for Romney to embrace Ryan’s budget so heartily, given the empathy gap between Romney and Obama.) All this “nastiness” has in turn made the centrists upset again that everyone is still being so mean to each other.

So. Much. Reaction. So many reactions to reactions!

Ryan has benefited from the Tea-Party-era notion that personality is a proxy for ideology.

And then, on top of all this, there are the reactions of, you know, the actual voters. Strangely, they don’t seem to love him. Gallup found that only 39% cited the selection as “excellent” or “pretty good,” while 42% said it was “only fair” or “poor,” one of the least positive reactions to a vice presidential pick since Dan Quayle in 1988. It’s hard to see him becoming more popular, especially as he moves into the vice president’s campaign role of attack dog. As for Romney, he barely saw the traditional (and temporary) post-VP-selection bounce. USA Today described his choice as Romney not hitting a home run, though it’s worth remembering that the last time people initially thought a VP pick was a home run, the home run was named Sarah Palin, and it was actually one of those infield pop-ups that looks better coming off the bat.

Indeed, it’s still early, and as Anthony Resnick noted in his column yesterday, Ryan is a very good politician, a conservative who has won election in a district far more moderate than he is. He carries risk for Romney, but also the possibility of great reward (again, something that was said about Palin). Much will depend on how the mainstream media brands him going forward, and, so far, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which most outlets have been willing to call him and his proposals what they are: extremely conservative. (This week it’s been Republicans who are trying to sell Ryan as a moderate.)

This stands in stark contrast to Ryan’s media treatment prior to his selection. Over the last few years he has been hailed as “serious,” “mild-mannered,” and, most of all, “brave” and “courageous.” (Two lengthy articles, one by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait in April 2012 and another by Time’s Michael Grunwald from April 2011, sum up the whole spectacle.)

I’m interested in how the media reacts to and then constructs the narrative of Paul Ryan because I’ve long believed that Ryan is part of a group of politicians—Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Virginia’s Eric Cantor also come to mind—who have benefited from the Tea-Party-era notion that personality is a proxy for ideology. Though Ryan is as right wing as anyone, because he is in temperament mild-mannered and polite, he is viewed as far more moderate than he actually is. He is, in fact, an extremist. As the New York Times’s Nate Silver details, he is the most conservative vice president candidate in over a century, and he is more conservative than any Democratic VP candidate has been liberal (in other words, he is the farthest from the center in either direction). His voting record is roughly comparable to Michele Bachmann’s, and yet thousands of voters who would never vote for a Romney-Bachmann ticket will pull the lever for Romney-Ryan. Temperament is important, of course, and Bachmann’s disqualifies her from the presidency, regardless of her political beliefs. But the crazy far-right has provided a sort of flank defense for the sane far-right; so many Tea Partiers frothing at the mouth about fake birth certificates has lowered the bar for what passes as a respectable, serious conservative.

Take Slate’s William Saletan, whose praise of Ryan basically boils down to the fact that “unlike many of his colleagues, Ryan isn’t a wanker or a hater.” Well, then. What more could we ask for?

Moderates may not be the only ones who have overrated Ryan; as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes, he hasn’t actually accomplished all that much yet, yet conservatives have lionized him, just as they did with Palin and Herman Cain and even Joe the Plumber. Paul Ryan is more serious than those individuals, but what does that amount to, really? He is no less conservative. Whether independent voters will be able to look past his “niceness” and see that will go a long way in determining the effect he has on this race.

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Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. He tweets @benrhoffman.

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