Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Paul Ryan, Mediocrity and Politics

Let's say you're a mediocre Member of Congress. You've served for ten or more years, your seat is safe, and by virtue of your tenure you have some decent committee assignments - but you have no legislative accomplishments, no national name recognition, no real agenda, no fire in your belly. Half the people in your district can't recall that you represent them, and many of those who do see you as having essentially bought your way into Congress based upon an inherited name and inherited money. You've been a reliable vote for whatever the presidents of your party wanted, but being a "yes man" can only carry you so far. Do you ride out the rest of your career in relative obscurity? Or do you look at some of the nut jobs who have managed to hitch their dimly lit stars to various reactionary movements and causes and say, "I can do that, too."

Now let's imagine that one of the positions you've gained is that of Chairman of the House Committee on the Budget. You are approached by the leaders of your party with a budget plan that is quite radical. They tell you, "Put your name on this plan, push it forward, and we'll stand squarely behind you. We'll line up commentators and columnists who speak of you in glowing terms." You might ask, "What's in it for me" - but you already know what's in it for you: the potential to be nationally known and recognized, the potential to escape your mediocrity. You might ask, "What's the downside", but you know that as well: really, nothing. The worst that happens is that your plan is rejected, the party says, "That was his idea, not ours," and you are left with some favors you can call in. Perhaps you can use those favors to attach your name to a significant bill, and at least seem less mediocre. You're not signing onto anything so radical that you're putting your seat in danger. Really, you can't lose.

There's nothing new in such a story. Change a detail here or there and you can find examples from pretty much any era, pretty much any country, pretty much any form of government. But in the modern era of 24-hour news coverage (take an hour's worth of news and stretch it to the point of breaking, add mediocre commentary and what passes for analysis, and call it a 24-hour news network), it's perhaps easier than ever to parlay a contrived alliance into at least short-term political fortune - as demonstrated by the mediocre candidates who were taken seriously during the Republican primary season, and the eagerness of the media to continue to cover a "race" that has for all practical purposes been over for quite some time.

Paul Ryan seems to be pretty much a classic example of this phenomenon. The problem from a policy standpoint is that the elevation of partisan mediocrity clouds the issues and harms the public debate. Actually, that's only a problem for the other side - that's your goal. When your party and the pundits and news commentators aligned with your party consistently misrepresent your plan as being some sort of stroke of genius, and the larger media goes along for the ride (or prefers to cover the horse race instead of the facts) the facts become irrelevant to the public debate.
Enter Mr. Ryan, an ordinary G.O.P. extremist, but a mild-mannered one. The “centrists” needed to pretend that there are reasonable Republicans, so they nominated him for the role, crediting him with virtues he has never shown any sign of possessing. Indeed, back in 2010 Mr. Ryan, who has never once produced a credible deficit-reduction plan, received an award for fiscal responsibility from a committee representing several prominent centrist organizations.

So you can see the problem these commentators face. To admit that the president’s critique is right would be to admit that they were snookered by Mr. Ryan, who is the same as he ever was. More than that, it would call into question their whole centrist shtick — for the moral of my story is that Mr. Ryan isn’t the only emperor who turns out, on closer examination, to be naked.
Fascinating, isn't it, how the spin applied to "your plan" can turn you from an example of Congressional mediocrity into somebody ballyhooed as fiscally responsible, an idea man, one of the most influential politicians in the nation (begging the question of exactly who it is that you are influencing).

There's another aspect to politics that has, over time, come to complicate the lives of politicians: A long history in which you lie to voters about your beliefs, lie to the media, and even maintain a consistent voting record consistent with your public image, while you work behind closed doors with other politicians (many of whom are as publicly dishonest as you are) to broker a deal based. You and politicians like you create a toxic public atmosphere around certain issues, but make sure that there are enough votes to pass a compromise bill. You may even prefer to make more concessions to the other side as a matter of sound public policy, but first and foremost your job as a Member of Congress is to get reelected, so if there are enough votes to pass the bill you helped craft you may even publicly denounce it and vote against it. If your vote is needed, you'll give a duplicitous speech about how the merits of the bill and needs of the country forced you to support a bad bill, and how you hope that parts can be repealed or will be overturned by the courts.

Think back to Evan Bayh, lamenting the "good old days" when Senators would socialize together, putting aside their partisan differences at night. That's easier when everybody understands that the public performance is largely an act, that at the end of the day everybody wants to get reelected - and to do that you need to pander to special interest groups and donors. The problem is that changes in the media, along with the rise of unofficial information channels (websites, blogs, Youtube), both help true ideologues rise to power and make it more difficult for politicians to ever deviate from their party's claimed orthodoxy, and easier for people to find and emphasize points of past deviation (even if, at the time, you were being a good foot soldier for your party). The parties continue to hold sufficient influence over the media and political commentators, perhaps especially the beltway types who love to think of themselves as powerful and well-connected, wise and influential.

If you're a media darling, though, with no real accomplishment, it's pretty easy for your party's leaders to shift the spotlight elsewhere. Had the spin of Ryan and his plan not worked, he would be long forgotten. Just another mediocre Member of Congress who voted for (can you believe it) Medicare Part D and TARP? His budget? Now spun as a stunt that his party never supported, just one guy trying to cover up his own voting history. How could somebody like that possibly be taken seriously as a fiscal conservative with that record, right? For all the talk about Ryan's influence it seems largely to be an illusion - it's not clear that he has actually influenced anything.

This much is clear:
  • The budget with Ryan's name attached won't ever become law, and even if it did his party would soon run, screaming, from the implications of everything but the tax cuts for the rich.

  • The only budget you can take seriously is the present budget, because in a year or two you're going to have a new Congress with a new agenda - and you can't bind them.

Warren Buffett offers a genuine solution to budget deficits - not necessarily wise on policy, but one that would unquestionably be effective:

If Congress wanted to balance the budget, Congress would balance the budget. The rest is a show.

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