PAUL RYAN CANNOT BE PALIN-IZED
The liberal assault on Paul Ryan has commenced. But the first round of attacks can’t provide much solace to Democrats, who assume they will be able to demonize the Republican vice presidential candidate with ease. The first 48 hours of Ryan’s candidacy has already seen a deluge of abuse from the mainstream media editorial pages and columnists. If all you read is the opinion pages of the New York Times, which trotted out its second editorial rant against Ryan in two days, then you probably think that political strategist turned pundit Robert Shrum’s boast in the Daily Beast that by the time the Obama campaign is through with him, Ryan will be as toxic as Sarah Palin. Liberals like Robert Reich, who took to the Huffington Post to howl that Ryan’s ideas are “social Darwinism” or former Times editor Bill Keller who damned the prospective next GOP administration as a compendium of every wicked conservative idea ever conceived, clearly believe all they need to do is to just call Ryan and to a lesser extent Romney, every name they can think of.
But the problem with this effort to Palin-ize Ryan is that the first returns show it probably won’t work.
One piece of evidence is the full length front-page profile of Ryan published in today’s Times. The story it tells of a small town boy whose intellectual prowess is matched only by his work ethic is not one that easily lends itself to the “extremist” narrative that the paper’s editorial page has been screaming about since Saturday. But the authors do their best to skew the portrait with language that doesn’t belong on the news pages of a reputable newspaper.
Part of the problem is that the Times can’t seem to find anyone who knows the likable congressman to dish any non-existent dirt on him. For example, in describing Ryan as an ambitious and accomplished teenager with numerous activities to his credit, the Times stoops to describe him as a “politically astute suck up.” No, that’s not a quote from some teenage rival but an editorial comment inserted into the article by the authors without quotes or even an attempt to attribute this opinion to anyone who knew him.
The article describes Ryan’s college career by again using a pejorative without quotes in which it characterizes his economic philosophy as “trickle down economics.” One can disagree with Ryan’s belief in the importance of economic freedom and the importance of encouraging the creation of wealth rather than expecting it to emerge as a result of some miraculous government intervention, but to use that kind of language again shows liberal reporters are trying a little too hard to follow their paper’s editorial party line in descriptions of the candidate.
Reality again collided with ideology last night on “60 Minutes.” The CBS program got the first post-announcement interview with Romney and Ryan last night, and there’s little doubt that liberals tuning into the program were hoping the Ryan roll-out would conjure up memories of how Sarah Palin was felled in her first network interviews after John McCain tapped her to be his vice presidential nominee. But Bob Schieffer never laid a glove on either Romney or Ryan. Much of the interview was softball material, but even when Schieffer attempted to attack the duo on the Ryan budget plan or entitlement reform, they easily turned away the assault and honed in on the president’s failings and the need to have the country face up to the tough issue of entitlement reform. Just as important, unlike Katie Couric’s confidence that she could embarrass Palin in 2008, Schieffer knew better than to try to tangle with the formidable Ryan.
While we can expect the assault on Ryan to only intensify in the coming days, liberals are already starting to show some frustration as they come up against the fact that whatever you may think of his ideas, he is both likable and admirable, something even President Obama was willing to admit earlier in his administration when he hoped to co-opt the intellectual leader of House Republicans.
Moreover, unlike Palin, Ryan is clearly ready to not merely hold his own on the enemy turf of the mainstream media but, as President Obama learned to his sorrow, is able to go on the offensive and challenge liberal orthodoxies without appearing like the snarling cartoon character that Democrats hope to paint to the public.
As I wrote earlier, it is an open question as to whether the American public will be willing to choose Ryan’s ideas about reforming our out-of-control tax and spend cycle over Democrat demagoguery intended to defend the status quo. But whatever the outcome of the election, the liberal boasts about turning Ryan into another Palin will fail miserably.
Many Democrats are outwardly cheering Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan. But I wonder what’s actually going through the minds of Obama’s inner circle. David Axelrod has probably run enough campaigns to realize that Paul Ryan is an exceptional political talent whose star is rising just as Obama’s is fading. And what’s the president thinking? Back in 2007, this was how Obama’s personal frustrations with his self-identity were described to the authors of the book Game Change:
“[Obama] wanted to be seen as substantive. He was substantive. And not being viewed that way was hurting his chances, he thought. I’ve spent my whole life caring about policy, he told his staff. I want to have new ideas. I want them to be specific. I want to make sure that no one can say they’re not specific enough. Obama had imagined at the outset of the campaign that he would set aside hours to consult with world-class experts, delving into the issues, devising innovative solutions. He kept asking for more time to do that, but his schedule was too jam-packed with fund-raisers and campaign events.”
Even back then, Obama was attached to the image of himself as a Serious Person. At the time, he didn’t have a history as someone who devised “innovative solutions” — in the Senate he had mainly voted along party lines, shying away from controversial issues. Since taking presidential office, Obama hasn’t fared much better when it comes to substance. He’s hopped from issues to issue — energy, jobs, the deficit, immigration — giving speeches, signing symbolic orders, proposing vague plans that don’t tend to get implemented. Even Obama’s signature achievement, health care reform, was crafted primarily by Congress.
Yet he continues to latch onto an image of himself as a policy wonk. During a recent interview with CBS, he said his biggest mistake as president was focusing too much on the “policies” and not enough on “tell[ing] a story to the American people.”
This seems to be a major element of Obama’s own self-identity. So it will be interesting to see how he handles a challenge like Paul Ryan — someone who is actually viewed in Washington as both a political superstar and a substantive man of ideas. Obama seems to be fairly thin-skinned for a politician, and he has a difficult time hiding it when he resents someone (see: Benjamin Netanyahu). He never appeared to hold strong feelings about Mitt Romney, but could that change now that Ryan’s entered the race?