Politics & Law

Mapping Paul Ryan

Lawrence Rosenthal

Paul Ryan represents one of two branches of the Tea Party. Let’s call it the libertarian branch. These are people who are single-minded and absolutist about “free-market economics.” Theirs is a passion that leads to across-the-board opposition to taxes and government regulation of economic life, to bemoaning public debt, and to the aim of whittling down the American welfare state to extinction. It is a strain of extreme American conservatism that has been with us since its fierce opposition, generally among highly placed corporate leaders, to the New Deal. It fought for decades for dominance in the Republican Party. Once having achieved it with the presidency of Ronald Reagan — and having put American liberalism on the defensive for a generation — it has been consistently dissatisfied with the compromises of conservative politicians in power and has maintained its sense of itself as an insurgent force. This is the Koch brothers Tea Party, the Dick Armey Tea Party.

The other branch of the Tea Party is its populist branch. You could call this its Sarah Palin, or Glenn Beck, branch. This is the gritty, sweaty division of the Tea Party, its expressive side. It thrives on identity politics: they are the “real Americans;” the people who want “to take their country back.” They feel passionately that liberalism — of the Democratic Party and of the weak-kneed in the Republican Party — is so mistaken, so corrupt and sinister, that it’s hard not to consider its believers and practitioners under the sway of foreign or even treasonous influences. And it is certainly ungodly. These are the people for whom the “social issues,” like opposing abortion and gay rights, carry enormous weight. This is the part of the Tea Party that gives rise to its most glaring excesses, views that play at the edge of conspiracy thinking: ideas like the certain conviction that, birth certificates be damned, Obama was not born in the United States — that he is a secret Muslim spearheading a plot to impose Sharia law and Islamicize the United States.

The populist branch adheres to the free-market absolutism of the libertarians, but with different motivations. The libertarians, of whom Ryan is very much the exemplar, are grounded in the economic theory of the Austrian school of economics, thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, whose seminal title, The Road to Serfdom, sums up their view of the Keynesian economics they have sought to displace for the past seven decades. The populists, in contrast, are motivated by powerful feelings of resentment and dispossession. Liberals are ‘cultural elitists,’ people who think they ‘know better than the rest of us,’ and want to ‘tell us how to live our lives.’ Liberals want to take away what ‘we,’ hard-working real Americans, have earned, and redistribute it to those who don’t deserve it — to their lazy, poor, and, often, minority political base.

Opposition to the Obama administration’s attempt to provide universal health insurance, “Obamacare,” swiftly became the Tea Party’s signature rallying issue after its founding in early 2009. But the Tea Party’s opposition to Obamacare as well illustrates the different routes libertarians and populists take to converge around the same political positions. For libertarians like Paul Ryan, Obamacare is an egregious extension of government’s role in the economy. It is history moving in the wrong direction, threatening to add a layer, perhaps fatal, to their goal of ending the welfare state. For the populists, with their different political driving forces, the attempt to provide health insurance to 40 million uninsured Americans is experienced instead as a zero-sum exercise in which they lose. Their problem with Obamacare is not simply its being given to the uninsured as its being taken, they feel, from themselves.

Their divergent paths to opposing Obamacare signal where the libertarians and the populists part company. For the libertarians, Obamacare is of a piece with programs like Social Security and Medicare, all of which they want to root out or, at the very least, privatize. This is the thrust of the Ryan budget passed last year by the Republican House of Representatives. But for the populist, older, white and upper middle class Tea Partiers, Social Security and Medicare are part of their cultural inheritance and vital to their sense of economic security. It is not the existence of these programs, but their extension to the “undeserving,” that they object to. Hence the extraordinary banners at Tea Party protests proclaiming, “Government hands off my Medicare.”

This division between the libertarians and the populists defines the fine line Ryan has to tread if he is to maintain the boost of energy he has given the Republican ticket. His selection as the vice presidential candidate is wildly popular in the Tea Party. He confirms the Tea Party’s role as both a power within the Republican Party and as the guarantor of Republican conservative orthodoxy. He has cured much of the Tea-Party soul-searching that has gone on since Romney sewed up the Republican nomination, and which drove the anybody-but-Romney parade of challenges that marked the Republican primary season.

Like John McCain (2008) and Robert Dole (1996) before him, Mitt Romney is a candidate of the Republican establishment who has used the selection of a vice presidential running mate to attempt to galvanize the otherwise half-hearted support of the Republican Party’s far right. Dole’s selection, Jack Kemp, was a mentor to the young Paul Ryan, and was very much a creature of libertarian Republicanism—indeed he was often pedantic talking fiscal matters. But he could do little to save Robert Dole’s candidacy among populist conservatives. Sarah Palin was the very incarnation of populist conservatism, and while a tonic for the blahs of the populists, finally turned off independent and moderate voters. With the Ryan selection, Romney hopes to thread the needle his predecessors have missed, capturing the sober moderates and maintaining the populists’ sense that Ryan is ‘one of us.’

A few months ago, rumors spread of Hilary Clinton possibly replacing Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. The idea seemed to be that this might cure Obama’s “enthusiasm gap.” Clinton would energize a Democratic base that had grown disillusioned with the ineffectual-seeming bipartisanship of Obama’s presidency. The Clinton-Biden swap didn’t come to pass, but Obama seems to have addressed the matter by calibrating his campaign toward the muscular candidate who captured the Democratic imagination in 2008.

Until now, the Republicans’ hope has been that the ‘anybody-but-Romney’ mood of the primaries would be overtaken by an ‘anybody-but Obama’ sentiment that would mobilize the Republican base. But the Republican version of the “enthusiasm gap” seemed to need stronger medicine. Hence, Paul Ryan.

For some time the 2012 Presidential election seemed to be shaping up as a contest of “competing enthusiasm gaps.” Each side has now placed its bets on how to overcome its respective enthusiasm liability and turn out its base. If Romney should overcome what seems today to be a notable Obama lead, the selection of Paul Ryan will seem to have been an inspired stroke of political cartography.

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Comments to "Mapping Paul Ryan":
    • Steve

      As a Canadian following the U.S. presidential campaign I have to say the Romney/Ryan ticket seems to be a better choice not only for the U.S. but for my country as well. Most Canadians were disappointed when President Obama didn’t approve the Keystone pipeline project and thus destroyed a promising prospect on the way to the economic recovery in both countries. More importantly, the interconnection between Canada and the U.S. is benefical not only for our national economy as a whole but also for the economic development in Canada’s regions, which could best be seen when the recovery in the U.S. motor vehicle market positively influenced Toronto’s leading automotive industry. However, I’m afraid that Obama’s decisions could threaten such positive economic development and worsen the relationship between Canada and the U.S.

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    • Joe

      I am a libertarian. Paul Ryan is no libertarian. He is a Republican to the core — observe his voting record on foreign policy and social issues. There is a libertarian candidate for the Presidency. His name is Gary Johnson — not Paul Ryan.

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    • Avi Rosenzweig

      I think we keep forgetting just how little the failed Republican establishment cares about what goes on outside the beltway. Their contempt for anyone who holds on to the (to them) silly fantasy that federal government matters, that it can do more than reward its allies or discomfort its opponents, results in a short-sighted measuring and weighing of local political advantage.

      In that atmosphere, putting Paul Ryan on the ticket is a way of getting rid of him — the RNC establishment has been maneuvering to get its Tea Party bucking broncos safely corralled and positioned where they can’t influence the usual horse-trading that they see as what politics is for.

      Putting Paul Ryan on the ticket is a way of neutering the power of the congressional upstarts, and if it happens to have a side-effect or add-on bonus of making it easier for many right-leaning Americans to hold their noses and vote for a rich prophet for profit, then that’s gravy.

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    • Clifford F. Thies

      The two wings of the Tea Party are more profoundly different than you describe. The libertarian wing is engaging, optimistic, inclusive, global. The other wing (a more traditional right wing) is reactionary.

      I could flip this around. On the left side of the political spectrum in many countries, you have neo-liberals such as Tony Blair, the German Social Democrats, and Democracy 66 in the Netherlands. They are animated by equality (social and economic equality), just as the libertarians are animated by freedom.

      But, the center-left is not dogmatically against the capitalist system, rather they seek to insure that those who wouldn’t do very well in a purely capitalist system are provided for. Conversely, center-right libertarians are not dogmatically opposed to a social safety net, but want to maintain robust incentives for persons to remain or become self-sufficient even with a social safety net, and they want to incorporate choice and competition in the provision of social services such as education and health care.

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    • Rick Mena

      Clifford,
      Thanks you very much for your remarks. I think you are 100% correct about the center-left and center-right and that this needs to be emphasized more often. Although the vast majority resides in the center of the bell curve, it sometimes seems that American politics are only driven by the extreme outer edges. In the media, we’ve become a bi-polar nation which seems to lead to nonproductive debates repalced only by political rhetoric, the spin phrase of the day and each extreamist pointing at the other.

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    • shintao

      Speaking of birth certificates, I want to see Paul Hutter’s birth certificate, where his real legal name appears, as this will clear up a lot of confusion about his inability to qualify for President of United States if needed as a VP, or in the future elections. Since his mother never married, has four kids, his ‘pick’ for a dad of the day is dead, we have no actual proof he is who he says he is.

      It will shed further light on the way he was raised on social services, as his mother is currently using Medicare, instead of Pual taking personal responsibility for his mother.

      Ryan was born and raised in Janesville, Wisconsin, the youngest of four children of Elizabeth A. “Betty” (née Hutter). Wiki~elsewhere

      I think turn about is fair play, or do we have a house full of hypocrites? Thank you.

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