I wouldn’t call Mark Leibovich’s New York Times Magazine cover story on Paul Ryan a “hatchet job,” as its subject half-jokily predicts, but its point of view is unmistakable: Ryan’s reputation as a Serious Man is largely the product of hype — and that, no matter what happens in November, his presence in the GOP will likely be even more formidable in the years to come.
In particular, I was struck by this passage of Leibovich’s:
In late September, Ryan introduced a slide-show demonstration to his appearances. “I’m sort of a PowerPoint guy, so bear with me,” he said the first time he did this, in Orlando, Fla., by way of apologizing for his apparent inability to communicate without his security blanket. Though his PowerPoint presentation is an extremely basic four-slide tutorial that shows how much the national debt has risen since World War II — something that many fifth graders could grasp — his home crowds invariably nod and praise him for his faith in their ability to grasp hard truths.
“Something fifth graders could grasp”: Ouch, right?
“But Ryan is on the stump!” you may respond. “You can’t expect him to get into the budgetary weeds!” Or, as preachers are fond of saying, “you’ve got to bring the hay down to where the calves can reach it.”
Yet here is Ryan talking to fellow members of Congress about the budget:
I’ll be generous: When in the presence of elected officials, Ryan ups his game to a level that, say, eighth-graders can grasp.
That Ryan is a “professor” is a big part of the hype that Leibovich bemoans between the lines. And congressional Republicans are more than happy to feed the hype. National Review’s Robert Costa, for instance, wrote in August that Ryan’s fellow members, especially the Tea Party-rich freshman class of 2010, are like “students”:
In early 2011, after the 80-plus House Republican freshmen arrived on Capitol Hill, McCarthy, Ryan, and Cantor huddled and agreed that they had a slight problem. Many tea-party candidates had campaigned on fiscal reform, but when they were confronted with details about certain proposals, or asked to explain Ryan’s budget, they stumbled. There was genuine energy but little coherency. The consensus about the stakes, and the scope of the challenges, had yet to be fully formed. To fix this, McCarthy asked Ryan to hold a series of “listening sessions” in his spacious, first floor Capitol office.
Those meetings, complete with Ryan’s PowerPoint presentations and wonky charts, made Ryan a mentor to many members on fiscal and economic issues. After years of spending most of his time on the budget committee, Ryan became an unofficial member of the leadership, guiding members on the budget.
Paul Ryan is a “professor” to the extent that his “students” are woefully and comically underinformed. And it is on the back of this ignorance that Paul Ryan the ideologue may ride into the U.S. Naval Observatory.