If we're being generous, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan is a man of contradictions. If we're being honest, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan is an idiot. Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick has problems beyond the basic teabagger contradiction of claiming to be for small government then passing an obscenely large military budget, voting to ban gay marriage, and enacting laws that lessen a woman's access to abortion and birth control. This is a Republican who unabashedly supported George W. Bush's war in Iraq and the Patriot Act, but also claims to be a big Rage Against the Machine fan. There is a dissonance, a bifurcation in Ryan's brain that demands further investigation.
As I write this, the media's love affair with Paul Ryan is still running hot and heavy. Since rumors of the Ryan pick broke late Friday night, reporters have not been able to say enough nice things about the man: good-looking, remarkably fit (anywhere from 6 to 8 percent body fat, multiple bloggers have cooed; a CNN headline on Monday swooned: "Paul Ryan's workout: Is P90X for you?"), young, a decent public speaker, well-loved in his home district around Janesville, Wisconsin, where he was born and still lives today with his beautiful wife and children. Hell, compared to the stiff, awkward, and biologically unlikable Romney, Ryan is the second coming of George Clooney, with a practiced aw-shucksiness and a closely cultivated cowlick that are meant to imply Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Republicans love Paul Ryan. They repeatedly, and without irony, refer to him as the brains of the Republican Party. In his introduction on Saturday, just before he mistakenly identified the vice presidential candidate as "the next president of the United States," Romney referred to Ryan as an "intellectual leader of the Republican Party." With that weird statement, Romney seemed to be proudly trumpeting the fact that he failed in his own years-long attempts to be his party's leader. What is a presidential candidate if not his own party's ideological and intellectual leader? It felt like an admission from Romney that his candidacy has failed, and so it's up to the kid now.
And the Republican media was more than happy to grant Romney's wish: In the days since his announcement, Romney has all but disappeared from the right-wing consciousness, with conservative bloggers singing hosannas in Ryan's name and ignoring the guy at the top of the ticket. It's a curious event that we haven't seen before... since 2008, when Sarah Palin eclipsed John McCain and sank his flailing campaign in a matter of weeks.
Of course, Ryan is more dangerous than Palin. Where Palin had a selection of only about 25 catchphrases she could memorize, Ryan has a dictionary full of relevant words he can slap around when he's under pressure. His statements are just as elusive as Palin's, but because he's not speaking in a folksy faux-Southern accent, and because he's a wealthy white man, people take him seriously. Look at the text of Ryan's 60 Minutes interview about accepting the vice presidential nomination, and read it to yourself in Palin's singsongy cadence:
[Romney] essentially said that we share the same values and that I have the kinds of experiences that complement his skills. That complement his experience. To help him govern. To execute a vision to get this country back on the right track. You know, to create jobs. To help people get back on the path in life.
Ryan is in over his head, but the media love a clean-cut guy in a suit who throws around words like "upwardly mobile" and "fairness" and "competition," so he'll get a pass.
Which is unfortunate, because Ryan is adept at lying to your face and getting away with it. Earlier this year, he realized that Ayn Rand was not a name to bandy about if you're looking for a role on the national stage, so he announced that even though there is plenty of video of Ryan praising Rand—admitting that he bought Atlas Shrugged as a Christmas present for his employees and calling her the reason he got into public service—his obsession with Rand is an "urban legend." He will look a senior citizen in the face and assure them that his voucher plan saves Medicare, even though it raises the age of eligibility, would force seniors to pay thousands more for health coverage every year, and strips Medicare of its biggest strength—its huge user base that allows the government to successfully negotiate with health care providers.
Ryan's contradictions run deep; his biography is built on them. After his father died, Ryan paid his way through college with Social Security survivors benefits. After he graduated and won his congressional seat, Ryan would thank the social safety net by cosponsoring the "Social Security Personal Savings Guarantee and Prosperity Act of 2005," which would have allowed people to put their Social Security savings in the stock market. Thankfully, not even a majority of Republicans endorsed that bill. If Ryan had his way and Americans had invested their Social Security benefits in stocks before the crash of 2008, we could be facing a crisis of millions of insolvent, bankrupted senior citizens right now.
This two-facedness even extends to Ryan's sense of humor. In September 2011, at a small-potatoes fundraiser in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Ryan was confronted by a 71-year-old protester who was outraged that Ryan wanted to shred the social safety net. As the police tackled the peaceful protester and dragged him away, Ryan cracked to the crowd, "I hope he's taken his blood pressure medication." This served simultaneously as a dig on the man's loud, unruly protestations as the police twisted his limbs and a sly little dig about the fact that if Ryan had his way, blood pressure medication could be unattainable for this senior citizen. Even if it wasn't intentional, it felt intentional, or at least like a Freudian slip.
Ryan executed a brilliant turn during the teabagger revolution of 2010. He had been a good little standard-issue Bush-era neocon, voting for higher deficits and steroid-addled military spending. But when it came time to pretend to care about the deficit, Ryan saw which way the wind was blowing and deftly aligned himself with the Tea Party, rising in the ranks to Chief Intellectual Teabagger. His Medicare-gutting budgets—surely Ryan knew they were pure fantasy, and that Democrats would never adopt them, which allowed him to play as far to the right as he wanted, with no real consequences—became the talk of Washington, DC. (Luckily for him, the teabagger revolution wasn't libertarian enough to require Ryan to change his stance on social issues—he's been consistently anti-choice, pro-discrimination, anti-gay, anti–public education, anti-environment, pro–big business, anti–gun control, and anti–separation of church and state all along.)
Then Mitt Romney became hopelessly desperate to invigorate his own party, and here we are. On my list of guesses as to whom Romney would pick for vice president, Ryan was third, after Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman. But in retrospect, a Ryan choice makes a ridiculous amount of sense. After all, according to the Atlantic's calculations based on the one year of Romney's taxes available to the public, Ryan's budget would leave Romney paying just .82 percent—that's less than 1 percent—presumably because Romney, with his overseas investments and secret Swiss bank accounts, is an American "job creator."
And so what we're left with here is the Republicanest Republican of them all, a man who Dick Cheney says he "worships," a 14-year veteran of the Republican House that drove us off a cliff and then whined all through the Obama administration's subsequent rescue work. Someone with no qualifications in foreign policy who is happy to talk tough about the Middle East and China when the consequences aren't his problem. A wealthy young white man who refuses to, for one second, consider what it must be like to be a woman, or a minority, or a member of the lower class, or old. A man whose words mean less than nothing.
Is it any wonder that Romney loves Ryan, can seemingly spend hours sitting next to him and softly chuckling while gazing in his direction, his hands awkwardly curled up in his lap? It must be like looking into a mirror that shows you all your life's possibilities. It must be like looking at all the potential he used to have. Here's the distillation of everything Romney believes, and by some fluke, people even like this other guy. If Romney didn't make Ryan his vice presidential candidate, he'd probably have killed him in a fit of jealous pique.