Paul Ryan was a high school prom king. Also his dad died when he was young, which is sad and uncool, and now he wants your dad to die too. Mitt Romney picked this guy to be his running mate Saturday morning, in a clever bid to capture a bloc of voters who might otherwise have gone to Obama: Tea Party members. Actually Ryan is a respected representative whose traction among the conservative wing of his party would help President Romney corral a potentially rebellious Congress. Or Candidate Romney decided he was going to lose in November unless he did something crazy. It depends whom you ask.
If you ask Mitt Romney, he will chuckle nervously and explain that his choice was not surprising at all. Romney is like an ATM with a lot of screens you can’t back out of. His motives are mysterious, so it’s probably a better use of our time to think about the consequences of his choice instead of the contributing factors. We know that Ryan is very conservative in his positions on government services and abortion. The Ryan Budget would eventually eliminate funding for highways and food inspection, creating a federal government that, by 2050, only does Social Security and defense. He sponsored a bill that would define human life as beginning at the moment of egg fertilization, which would make IUDs illegal. The observation that Ryan is roughly as conservative as Michele Bachmann is all over the internet, which seems convincing until you realize they’re all citing the Nate Silver analysis linked above.
Really, Paul Ryan has been in Congress since 1998. He was there when George W. Bush turned surplus to deficit by using tax cuts to fund land wars in Asia, and he voted for the bailout and the prescription drug plan. He is definitely interested in shrinking the size of government, but it’s not because he is a deficit hawk. For Ryan, the specter of debt is less an avenging revenant than a spook to startle people into embracing cuts to government services, which are right because they are right. The congressman from Wisconsin is an ideologue of the kind that has made today’s GOP the closest America has ever had to a religious party.
That, to me, is what is interesting about Romney’s choice of running mate. I do not think Paul Ryan means that Mitt Romney has embraced a hardcore conservative agenda. The man who wants to eliminate the FDA and the man who invented the individual mandate do not suddenly come together on policy. And while Romney is religiously conservative by most Americans’ standards, his political career has shown none of the anti-abortion zealotry that makes Ryan the subject of five-item lists in the Huffington Post. Yet despite their disparate ideological bases, the politics of Romney and Ryan have one thing in common: they would be very good for rich people.
Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Ryan’s budget would amount to the greatest upward transfer of wealth in American history. His plan to reduce the top income tax rate to 25% and make the Bush tax cuts permanent would result in $9.6 trillion in lost revenue over the next ten years. That is not the plan of someone who is ideologically committed to reducing the federal debt; it is the agenda of a man who believes rich people are better beneficiaries of what our generation of Americans might do than poor people. In this regard, Ryan is a close cousin to Mitt Romney, a man whose policy centerpiece—indeed his only strongly-held position—is that we must cut the personal and corporate income tax.
So I do not see the selection of Paul Ryan as proof that Romney has become a Gingrich-style conservative bugbear. I do see it as an indication that what the Tea Party changed most about the Republican Party was its marketing strategy. The policies have remained the same: lower taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans; cut spending on social services and raise spending on defense. That’s what Paul Ryan supported when George W. Bush was doing it in the name of supply-side economics, and it’s what he supports now that the House wants to do it in the name of budget deficits. It’s what Mitt Romney wants to do in the name of whatever it is you folks who came out tonight believe. The Republican Party has unveiled its ticket for 2012, and it’s two good-looking millionaires with the same plan they had in 2002. Surprise!