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Paul Ryan’s Secret Weapon

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Posted on Aug 15, 2012
AP/J. Scott Applewhite

By Bill Boyarsky

Contrary to Democrats’ hopes, Mitt Romney’s choice of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan for his running mate might not be such good news for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Unlike Sarah Palin, who embarrassed herself four years ago, and even Mitt Romney, Ryan has many friends in the media.

It’s true that Ryan’s right-wing economic views are far from the mainstream. His proposed budget would cause untold harm to the economy, make the lives of the poor intolerable and wreck Medicare. Medicaid for the poor, aid to local schools and law enforcement, and money for transit would all be cut, among other reductions. If the Republicans win the presidency and control the Senate and House, Social Security recipients would be left in the care of the merciless stock market. Ryan would raise taxes for the poor and lower them for the rich. All this is supported by Romney, who has extended his platform to include what is now justifiably called the Romney-Ryan budget.

Perfect, Democrats say. Ryan’s extremism is a gift as valuable as Sarah Palin’s was in 2008. But that may be a bad analogy. Ryan is intelligent and articulate. Palin was in trouble as soon as she was interviewed on television. The news media shredded Palin, who was until then extremely popular as Alaska’s governor. But so far, the coverage of Ryan has been respectful, even by journalists who disagree with his views.

Mark Halperin, political analyst for Time and MSNBC, cited this as a plus that Ryan will bring to the ticket. Even before Mitt Romney announced his selection of Ryan, Halperin tweeted, “Ryan would bring: MSM reporters (who like him more than the right knows); talk radioers skeptical of Mitt; ditto Tea Partiers=game changer.” Then on Monday, he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “I’ll tell you another constituency he has: Almost every national political reporter knows Paul Ryan, likes Paul Ryan, more than they do Mitt Romney. And that gives Romney a little bit of an edge that he was missing, in the press corps.”

These warm feelings have bolstered the Ryan image as he introduced himself this week to a nation that hardly knows him. The picture, as presented in the media, was that of a devoted family man, a hunter and a fisherman, a physical fitness devotee and, above all, a student of public policy, especially when it comes to the budget. Sure, his economic theories come right out of Ayn Rand and other libertarian idols, but he’s accessible, always willing to talk. Reporters appreciate that quality as well as his ability to throw numbers around.

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Paul Krugman wrote Monday in The New York Times:

“Like Bush in 2000, Ryan has a completely undeserved reputation in the media as a bluff, honest guy, in Ryan’s case supplemented by a reputation as a serious policy wonk. … It’s because many commentators want to tell a story about US politics that makes them feel and look good — a story in which both parties are equally at fault in our national stalemate, and in which said commentators stand above the fray. This story requires that there be good, honest, technically savvy conservative politicians, so that you can point to these politicians and say how much you admire them, even if you disagree with some of their ideas; after all, unless you lavish praise on some conservatives, you don’t come across as nobly even-handed.”

Take, for example, a column Sunday in the Financial Times by Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group. He called the Ryan budget “utterly unrealistic as a matter of policy.” But he also wrote that Ryan “understands the hard choices ahead and has a coherent view of how to make them.”

There’s danger for Obama in such coverage.

Romney and Ryan will hammer away at the deficit, and at the shortfalls faced by Medicare and Social Security in future years. In truth, there’s nothing wrong with a deficit while we’re in recession. And there is much Congress can do to assure the financial viability of Social Security and Medicare in future years. The president’s Affordable Care Act will help with Medicare.

But so far, Obama has failed to make his case. He has to explain why Social Security isn’t going broke. In addition to criticizing Romney and Ryan for wanting to dismantle Medicare, he has to make a more convincing case of how he is strengthening it. And he’s got to explain just how he is going to get the unemployed back to work.

This is not 2008. The magic of the first Obama campaign is gone. Obama is spending millions in a struggle to activate a grass-roots movement that spontaneously exploded from nowhere in 2008 and then evaporated as soon as the president won the election and began filling in the blanks.

The left, which has developed an antagonism to the incumbent not felt since the Vietnam War, may sit this one out. The right, energized by Ryan, will not. There’s no Sarah Palin to kick around. And the economy has not recovered. The economic collapse of 2007-08 elected Obama. This year’s bad economy has put Romney just about even with the president.

Into this window of opportunity steps Paul Ryan, who seeks to dismantle the social services safety net created over many decades. Sympathetic journalists trying to be evenhanded are making the radical seem reasonable. At least that’s how it looked in the first few days of Ryan’s introduction to America tour.

Journalists reacted with schadenfreude when Sarah Palin could not name a magazine she read, when she stumbled to comment on important Supreme Court decisions and when she was forced to consult her hand for talking points.

Hopefully, before Ryan is sworn in as vice president, the press corps will come to its senses and treat his whack-a-doodle economic radicalism with as much derision.


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