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Paul Ryan and CNN: A Match Made in Heaven?

Date posted: Thursday, August 30, 2012

Examining one of the most disingenuous speeches ever made by a major politician.

Photograph via Flickr by NewsHour

Photograph via Flickr by NewsHour

If you ever wondered what would happen if a much-hailed, up-and-coming politician decided to use his coming out moment to deliver a pretty much unrelenting stream of bullshit, it happened last night in Tampa. Paul Ryan spoke. He was forceful. He was passionate. He was disingenuous. The crowd went wild!

I know, I know, only the most partisan of partisans attend a political convention. Still, whenever the camera panned the crowed, I searched fruitlessly for but one lone face that read, but . . . wait . . . some of this doesn’t make sense.

No, some of it did not make sense.

Ryan criticized Barack Obama for promising and then failing to support a factory in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. In reality, the factory closed before Obama took office and Obama actually made no such promise. He accused Obama of failing to act on a bipartisan deficit commission, neglecting to mention that he himself was on the commission and voted against it. He complained about Obama’s $716-billion-cut to Medicare, though A) Ryan’s plan makes the same cuts, and B) the cuts come mostly from payments to providers, not from patient care, and would actually keep Medicare solvent longer. He noted that Obama’s term “began with a perfect Triple-A credit rating for the United States” and “ends with a downgraded America.” Yes, why did our credit get downgraded? That’s right, it was because “the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened” (read: the GOP forced the government to the brink of a shutdown) and because Congressional Republicans—like Paul Ryan—refused to consider letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

Perhaps my favorite moment came when Ryan said that life under the Obama administration is a “dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” Basically, we are living in The Matrix and Paul Ryan is The One.

Wolf Blitzer said, “I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want.”

Mind you, Ryan savaging Obama came on the heels of Condoleezza Rice blaming Obama for our decreased standing across the globe, a laughably untrue charge. Before that, Ohio Senator Rob Portman lectured Obama on the deficit. Since Portman was George W. Bush’s OMB director at a time when the deficit doubled, this accusation was pretty much the moment for which the term “LOL” was invented. Couldn’t the GOP have rounded up former Bush FEMA director Michael D. “Heck of a job” Brown to criticize Obama’s disaster responses? Can we just go back and blame Barack for 9/11 while we’re at it?

Even—yes, you are reading this right—Fox News ran a piece criticizing the speech for being, among other things, distracting and deceiving. I have not ruled out the possibility that Fox considers those adjectives to be compliments.

I watched Ryan’s speech on C-SPAN, and then flipped over to CNN in time to hear Wolf Blitzer say, “I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want,” words that probably ought to be part of his—and his network’s—epitaph. His co-anchor Erin Burnett agreed that “there will be some issues with the facts. But it motivated people.” Having skimmed over the whole this-was-all-made-up issue, the analysts were freed up to offer other insights. Blitzer said the way Ryan’s mother was used was “adorable.” Burnett raved about the sparkly headband worn by Ryan’s daughter Liza (couldn’t CNN have done some journalism and figured out if she dressed herself or not?). Burnett said that the presence of Ryan’s three children showed her a different side of him than the wonk she knew from D.C (wait, wonks procreate?).

Then Blitzer and Burnett threw it over to CNN’s focus group of undecided voters. Hell will be an eternal CNN undecided voter panel, with Tim Pawlenty telling chuckles in the background. The voters, who will apparently decide this election, did not know much about Obama, or Ryan, or anything, really; they were certain of only one thing—Ryan’s speech was in no way frightening or scary. We know they were certain because CNN asked them repeatedly. I recently noted the tendency of the media and of some voters to use temperament as a proxy for ideology when it comes to politicians like Paul Ryan. This is the genius of Ryan. No need to shout. Just lie with a smile. The voters won’t know any better, and you will seem nice and trustworthy.

This is the genius of Ryan. No need to shout. Just lie with a smile.  The voters won’t know any better.

Mike Huckabee is another politician who occasionally benefits from this phenomenon. A few hours earlier, he opened his speech with a strange joke about “the awful noise” Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz made practicing her DNC speech. The joke was okay because Huckabee tacked on a gentle “Bless her heart” at the end. Huckabee is an insane, bigoted man, bless his evangelical heart.

But back to Ryan. Suppose what he said about the Janesville factory was true. Suppose Barack Obama had tried to keep the plant open. This, after all, is what Paul Ryan himself tried to do. As that headline notes, Ryan tried to use government funds and power to prop up the plant. What sort of get-your-government-hands-off-my-free-market-capitalism is that? What would Ayn Rand think? (In the future, can we just respond “WWART” when confronted with one of Ryan’s many deficit-increasing votes?) As Slate’s Matt Yglesias joked, “When Paul Ryan is in charge, socialism will exclusively benefit the elderly and one town in Wisconsin.”

This is always how it goes, you know. Government for me but not for thee. The workers from Ryan’s hometown deserved sympathy and a helping hand because they caught a bad break. But if the factory had been located elsewhere, it would have been the beneficiary of, to quote Ryan’s speech, “political patronage, corporate welfare, and cronyism at their worst.” And let’s not forget that Ryan and Mitt Romney have drawn a line in the sand between “legitimate” entitlements, like Medicare for the old white middle-class, and those that benefit poorer minorities.

It is possible that demographic realities might force Republicans to reconsider which categories of citizens they consider worthy of aid. Fast-forward twenty or thirty years, and we might see Paul Ryan’s daughter on a convention stage again, probably without the sparkly headband. Possibly she will hold up, as an example of the American dream, some hardworking Mexican family her father’s party once tried to keep out of this country. Possibly then she will criticize Democrats for some supposed threat they pose to the Affordable Care Act. Possibly she will say the ACA is a promise and we will honor it, just like her father said last night about an entitlement he surely would have voted against had he been around in 1965. Now the recipients of Medicare are his people, though, so Medicare is a promise to be honored. But the ACA is a promise, too, and maybe one day the people it helps will be his people, too.

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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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