Paul Krugman on Paul Ryan:
How will the chaos that the crazies, I mean the Freedom Caucus, have wrought in the House get resolved? I have no idea. But as this column went to press, practically the whole Republican establishment was pleading with Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, to become speaker. He is, everyone says, the only man who can save the day.
What makes Mr. Ryan so special? The answer, basically, is that he’s the best con man they’ve got. His success in hoodwinking the news media and self-proclaimed centrists in general is the basis of his stature within his party. Unfortunately, at least from his point of view, it would be hard to sustain the con game from the speaker’s chair.
To understand Mr. Ryan’s role in our political-media ecosystem, you need to know two things. First, the modern Republican Party is a post-policy enterprise, which doesn’t do real solutions to real problems. Second, pundits and the news media really, really don’t want to face up to that awkward reality.
The nutsery have been looking for the Savior — the man (and it’s always a man, preferably white and Protestant but Catholic will do in a pinch) — who can be the one to recapture the glory they had in Ronald Reagan, only this time in a permanent position such as Speaker of the House. They thought they had that in Newt Gingrich, but he turned out to be a charlatan, so he had to go and the search goes on. But no one has risen to the heights of expectation they have; even Ronald Reagan on his best day couldn’t be “Ronald Reagan” any more because the real one raised taxes and had drinks with Tip O’Neill.
Paul Ryan is their next hope, their answer to their prayers. He’s relatively young, Midwestern, white, good-looking, and he talks a great game; he could sell a Volkswagen diesel to those grannies in the mercifully-terminated ads. As the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, he can talk budgets and policy until your eyes glaze over, and since he’s never been in the position when he could actually enact legislation that will get signed into law, he can sell something without actually having to deliver. He can cut taxes to zero and the economy will boom; health insurance will pay for itself and we will all bask in the glow of Republican Prosperity. The fact that his numbers don’t add up doesn’t mean anything; he will charm us to Utopia.
Which brings us back to the awkward fact that Mr. Ryan isn’t actually a pillar of fiscal rectitude, or anything like the budget expert he pretends to be. And the perception that he is these things is fragile, not likely to survive long if he were to move into the center of political rough and tumble. Indeed, his halo was visibly fraying during the few months of 2012 that he was Mitt Romney’s running mate. A few months as speaker would probably complete the process, and end up being a career-killer.
Predictions aside, however, the Ryan phenomenon tells us a lot about what’s really happening in American politics. In brief, crazies have taken over the Republican Party, but the media don’t want to recognize this reality. The combination of these two facts has created an opportunity, indeed a need, for political con men. And Mr. Ryan has risen to the challenge.
I’m reminded of the last scene of The Music Man. Prof. Harold Hill has been exposed as the con man that he is and the townspeople of River City have dragged him to the center of the stage and demanded that he actually conduct the boys’ band that he promised to produce. Covered in tar and feathers, he raises the baton and [spoiler alert] out wheezes a cacophony of sound that makes banshees get out of the business. But the townspeople, seeing their little darlings fart out this noise, are enthralled and think it’s Mozart, Prof. Hill is reunited with his librarian love, and it’s all a happy ending. As the Professor says, “I always think there’s a band.”
The Republicans and Paul Ryan think so, too.