Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Paul Ryan Tug of War: Philosophy vs. Politics

Paul Ryan Tug of War: Philosophy vs. Politics

Photograph via Getty Images

The early word on Paul Ryan is that he is a thinker of serious thoughts, a man who will make this campaign about ideas instead of foolishness like tax returns. Indeed, Ryan cites a philosopher (I’m being generous with the term “philosopher,” and using it to apply to anyone who develops a philosophy without regard to how facile or morally bankrupt that philosophy might be)—Objectivist and Young Republican hero Ayn Rand—as the reason he entered public service. In 2003, he claimed to make all his interns read Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. He has cited Rand’s influence both on his thinking on monetary policy and his thinking about capitalism in moral terms. In addition to his philosophical roots, Ryan also has a reputation as a policy wonk, someone with a deeper knowledge of and care for economics than your standard politician. (Actual Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman takes issues with this reputation.)

Of course, Paul Ryan is also a politician—someone with his far-right beliefs does not win election 7 times in a swing congressional district, let alone rise to become arguably the most influential person in the Republican Party at age 42, without considerable political skill. Being a politician does not always lend itself to having a philosophy. Ryan has already had to distance himself from his hero Rand because of her atheism, claiming that Catholic social teaching is a stronger influence on his outlook. Of course, maintaining both Ayn Rand and the Catholic Church as intellectual influences is a tricky proposition. Conveniently for Ryan, on those issues where Rand and the Catholic Church disagree—such as the obligation of the rich to help the poor (the church is in favor, Rand was very much against) or abortion rights (Rand was in favor, the church is very much against)—Ryan takes the prevailing view of the Republican Party. For good measure, even in an area where Rand and the church agree—on the immorality of war—Ryan sides with the GOP.

Ryan’s rise through the Republican Party is an interesting journey from loyal soldier to bold insurgent to responsible leader. The journey shows that Ryan is willing to moderate his intellectual convictions to meet his present political needs. While Ryan is now known as a deficit hawk, during the Bush administration he voted for deficit-exploding measures like the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq War, and Medicare Part D. Ryan now claims to have been “miserable” during the years that his party was running up huge deficits. As noted by Daniel Larison in The American Conservative, Ryan is now seeking to disavow 10 of the 14 years he’s been in public office. Ryan’s expressed “misery” over large deficits corresponds nicely with the ability to blame deficits on a president of the opposite party.

[pullquote_right]Ryan is willing to moderate his intellectual convictions to meet his political needs.[/pullquote_right]

Once Barack Obama became president, Ryan, according to a recent profile in The New Yorker by Ryan Lizza, strove “to reintroduce himself as someone true to his ideological roots and capable of reversing his party’s reputation for fiscal profligacy.” The vehicle for doing that was to produce a detailed budget as an alternative to the president’s budget and get his Republican House colleagues to support it. Ryan’s first attempt at crafting a budget came in the final years of the Bush administration—his first budget was so extreme that 40 of his Republican colleagues voted against it. In 2008, Ryan presented his budget as a “Roadmap to American Prosperity.” However, once President Obama took office, Ryan deferred to Republican leadership in not publicizing the Roadmap so that Republicans could attack the president’s agenda without providing an alternative that the president could attack.

With the rise of the Tea Party culminating in major conservative victories in the 2010 elections, Ryan became more aggressive in getting his party to follow his vision. By 2011, all but four members of the House GOP were on board. Ryan and his plan had garnered enough support within the party that Republican presidential candidates had to get in line—Newt Gingrich’s first (of three) rise in the polls ended after he had the gall to criticize Ryan’s Medicare plan as “right-wing social engineering.” At the same time the Ryan budget was embraced by the right, it came under withering attack from the left. Ryan’s budget calls for draconian spending cuts while at the same time giving massive tax increases to the wealthy (as many have been quick to point out, Romney would pay almost no taxes under Ryan’s plan). Most controversial has been Ryan’s plan to gut entitlements. Under his original proposal, Social Security would have been partially privatized, an idea Ryan first pursued in 2005. In the 2011 version, Medicare—which provides health insurance to seniors—would have been transformed from government-provided health insurance to a voucher system for seniors to buy private insurance, with no guarantee that the amount of the voucher would match the cost of insurance. Medicaid—which provides health insurance to the poor—would be transformed from an entitlement to a block grant system where the amount of money provided by the federal government to the states would not be guaranteed to be enough to cover everyone currently eligible for Medicaid. President Obama leapt at the opportunity to hold up Ryan’s budget in contrast to his own priorities, and polling demonstrates that the Ryan budget is a winning issue for Democrats.

The Ryan budget demonstrates the conflicting pulls of politics and philosophy. While Ryan and the GOP sell the Ryan budget under the politically appealing heading of fiscal responsibility, the fact that despite all of its proposed cuts the Ryan budget will not result in a balanced national budget until 2040, leads to the conclusion that the real mission lies in imposing a conservative philosophy regarding the role of government, attacking the very notion of “we the people” and the concept of government intended to provide for the general welfare. In Lizza’s telling, as Ryan’s plan became his party’s plan, Ryan softened it somewhat to make it more politically feasible and less toxic for his party to embrace. He removed the philosophy-heavy introduction. The move towards privatizing Social Security was removed. Over the past year, Ryan has amended his Medicare proposal to maintain the option of government-issued insurance alongside the choice of a voucher to buy private insurance. This idea has been co-signed by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, allowing the Romney/Ryan campaign to boast of their bipartisan Medicare plan (Senator Wyden has objected to the Romney campaign attaching his name to their Medicare plan, claiming that the plan he endorsed with Ryan only works if the Affordable Care Act—which Romney and Ryan vow to repeal—remains in effect.)—it’s doubtful that this plan would also be co-signed by Ms. Rand.

[pullquote_left]No politician in the world is skilled enough to defend some of Ryan’s ideas in a national campaign.[/pullquote_left]

So whom did Romney choose, Paul Ryan the thinker or Paul Ryan the politician? My guess is that the Romney campaign thought it could get the best of both worlds: that Ryan’s reputation as a thinker of big (conservative) thoughts would excite the conservative base (as Ian Cheney noted on Monday, mission accomplished on this front) and win kudos from the media while the campaign softens his edges and gets undecided voters to focus on his Midwestern good-naturedness and deep blue eyes. Ryan’s reputation as a serious thinker allows him to lend an air of credibility to the same vague, generic, pro-enterprise/limited government talking points that Romney’s been spouting. While the Ryan pick was supposed to signal the Romney campaign’s willingness to have a serious conversation on important issues like Medicare, Romney has already shown his reluctance to discuss the specifics of his plan in comparison to what Ryan previously put forward. Romney wants credit for putting forth big ideas—in contrast to what he claims to be a deficit of leadership from the president—without actually having to provide details of those ideas. Ryan provides gravitas by reputation instead of details.

Of course, there’s only so far the Romney campaign can go in distancing itself from ideas that Ryan has already publicly expressed support for. Supporters of the president are being warned not to underestimate Paul Ryan’s political skill. But no politician in the world is skilled enough to defend some of Ryan’s ideas—like Medicare and Social Security privatization—in a national campaign. Ryan has shown appeal that transcends ideology by easily winning re-election in a district carried by President Obama, but a national campaign is an entirely different animal. While I can’t claim much knowledge of Ryan’s congressional races, it’s a safe assumption that he never faced opponents with the political acumen, and certainly not with the resources, of the Obama campaign. Ryan has never had to defend his ideas from the type of attack they’re about to face. George W. Bush was also a highly skilled politician, and his attempt to sell the nation on privatizing Social Security was a total disaster.

Ryan has tied himself to the most extreme conservative view of the role of government. Thus far in his career he has done a masterful job of knowing when to press forward with his vision and when to make politically necessary compromises. In an election that Republicans were hoping to be solely a referendum on Barack Obama’s stewardship of the economy, considerable doubt exists over whether this was the right time to force Ryan’s philosophy into the center of the national debate. The question moving forward is whether Ryan, and more importantly Romney, have the political skill to get enough voters to embrace, or at least overlook, Ryan’s philosophy.