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The Boy in the Bubble

Paul Ryan's record doesn't match his rhetoric.

Rep. Paul Ryan delivered a fabulous speech Wednesday night. No doubt he benefitted from the skills of speechwriter Matthew Scully, who also helped to carpenter former Gov. Sarah Palin’s well-received acceptance speech at the 2008 convention. But Ryan’s delivery of the text, his winning persona, can’t be discounted. He was by turns energetic, reflective, funny, and, at all times, utterly assured of his worldview.

He hit on all the themes that will feature in the coming campaign against Obama: the wasteful spending; the lack of leadership; the cronyism; Obamacare; the self-regarding verbosity. Ryan, to his credit, acknowledged the economic crisis that Obama inherited and his own party’s lack of fiscal discipline.

There is, however, a great disconnect between Ryan’s reality and the reality that the rest of us inhabit.

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, Obama is “spending money we don’t have” — unlike, say, his running mate’s budget plan, which does not even attempt to mathematically reconcile its tax cuts, new defense spending, and undefined spending reductions.

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there is a grand conflict in American life: that between those who believe in an all-powerful government and those who believe our rights derive from “nature and God.” (I wonder: was “nature” capitalized in the text?) This is the sort of windy rhetoric that appeals to the earnest college sophomore on the pre-law track. But what does it have to say about the complexities of global financial capitalism and the moral authoritativeness of its outcomes?

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are pent-up energies in the American economy just waiting to be unleashed by just one more supply-side goosing by the ghost of Jack Kemp.

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, Obamacare is the a “power play” that “came at the expense of the elderly,” while his and Mitt Romney’s 2010-reprising plan to scare seniors in the short term, while in the long term reducing Medicare spending by the same amount as projected by the Obama administration (but in reality by far more once the crutch of his magical asterisks are kicked away), is a model of courage and intellectual honesty.

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, Obama blithely chooses to do nothing about long-term debt — even as Ryan himself squelched a budget deal because it raised new revenue (without raising income taxes).

Paul Ryan is a talented, well-intentioned man who has been groomed by, and cultivated in the eco-system of, Washington’s conservative intelligentsia. His speech, for all its many fine qualities, is an emblem of the superficial attractiveness and substantive bankruptcy of this intelligentsia.



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