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The Gospel According to Paul

How a cynical Randian hustler played a myopic D.C. press corps for suckers

A while ago, a friend reminded me that I had interviewed Paul Ryan. I was certain that I was being pranked; surely I would have remembered soliciting the policy views of the future Speaker of the House. For other D.C. political scribes, talking through the vagaries of the federal budget with the numbers-fluent Ryan was nothing short of revelatory. Had I simply slumbered through my road-to-Damascus moment in the great Washington quest for policy sagesse? It couldn’t be!

And yet it was. Back in 2006, when I was columnizing for the New York Observer on national politics, I’d canvassed various dour Republican lawmakers on their party’s prospects in the upcoming midterms—and the less-than-inspiring elevation of John Boehner to Majority Leader. Someone had suggested that I reach out to Ryan, then a fairly unheralded budget-committee member in the House, for a quote on the then-urgent question of earmark reform. He obliged, I filed my column, moved on to other work matters, and promptly forgot the whole thing.

Ryan was always the crass ideologue who’d appeared in my column: a spouter of transactional talking points that the D.C. power structure had mistaken for Serious Policy Making.

Now that Ryan has announced that he’s bailing from Congress and the Speakership alike, it seems clear that the (admittedly absent-minded) decision to forget about Paul Ryan had a great deal to recommend it. For all of his endlessly lauded proficiency in the mystic arts of budget wonkery, Ryan was always nothing more than the crass ideologue who’d appeared in my column: a walk-on spouter of merely transactional talking points that the entire D.C. power structure had mistaken for Serious Policy Making. Even a dozen years ago, I should have had the basic reportorial wit to realize that Ryan was punking me with his inoffensive earmark patter: for all his ardently professed devotion to tough-minded budget crunching, Ryan had eagerly voted for the Bush administration’s wildly unfunded Medicare Part D expansion three years earlier—a bald pre-election bid to nail down the senior vote for Bush in 2004 that should have forever rendered the notion of Republican fiscal discipline an occasion for a loud chorus of bitter guffaws.

In other words, the cynical hustle of Ryanism was always hiding in plain sight. Ryan had never been the earnest technocratic problem-solver of the D.C. pundit class’s fond imagining. No, like any on-the-make careerist in the corridors of power, he acquired the reputation of a policy intellectual as a kind of protective coloration, permitting his various frontal assaults on federal income supports, affordable health care, and Social Security to appear as the rueful outcome of sustained, well-intentioned reckoning with harsh and unforgiving numbers. As Alec MacGillis noted in a masterful 2012 New Republic dismantling of the Ryan persona,

Ryan is not some sort of high-minded intellectual, taking in the world’s problems with an independence of mind and openness to new information. He is an ideologue with a politician’s talent for sticking to party orthodoxy in the face of contrary evidence. “He has a real talent for staying on his talking points,” says Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who serves on the Budget Committee. “Most people would be distracted when someone points out, ‘Gee, Paul, your budget takes all those purported savings and redistributes them [as tax cuts to the wealthy].’ He has the ability to just repeat the talking point . . . . It’s a gift.”

Actually, the real gift comes in the act of getting a terminally credulous Washington press to believe that your tirelessly incanted talking points are the product of measured policy judgment and intellectual rigor. From the time Ryan first alighted in Washington, his great passion was not for keeping budgets in line, or kicking around policy options for redressing poverty. Ryan was a dyed-in-the-wool Ayn Rand Objectivist, who believed that government support for the less fortunate was not merely fiscally unworkable, but immoral. He quickly found kindred spirits: after a couple years with Jack Kemp’s Empower America think tank, Ryan, at twenty-five, became legislative director for Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. Rob Wasinger, who worked with Ryan as an aide in Brownback’s office in the late 1990s, told MacGillis that “I probably heard more about Ayn Rand than anything else in terms of his thinking on things. It was basically a lot of references to Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.” Indeed, Ryan’s own falling out with Brownback came when he loaded up the senator’s policy team with fellow true-believing Randians to the point where, as MacGillis writes, “Ryan’s agenda eventually fell out of favor with his boss, who took more interest in issues that were distinctly un-Randian.” That’s right: Paul Ryan ran a congressional policy shop that was too far to the right for Sam Brownback—the man who later, as governor of Kansas, drove the state economy into the ditch by enacting a series of blockbuster tax cuts for no good reason beyond their ideological appeal.

Small wonder that after Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998, he was determined to enforce ideological orthodoxy in the ranks of his own staff, and made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his incoming interns. (Ever since he was named Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, Ryan has tried to dismiss his Rand idolatry as a misguided youthful infatuation, but you don’t structure your congressional staff and policy agendas around a dorm-room intellectual crush.)

Small wonder that after Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998, he was determined to enforce ideological orthodoxy in the ranks of his own staff, and made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his incoming interns.

Nevertheless, as Ryan prepares to leave the D.C. scene that inflated his reputation out of all sane proportion there is, naturally enough, a great swelling chorus of pundits gnashing their teeth and rending their garments over the great man’s departure. In my hometown paper’s reliably deranged op-ed section, we have Megan McArdle—another witless Randian elevated into the first rank of policy respectability—warning that we shouldn’t “be so glad to see Ryan go.” Getting the historical record precisely backward, she presents Ryan’s career as a tragic study in thwarted sincerity brought to heel by the ugly exigencies of congressional power. Behold, dear reader the knight of entitlement reform in his hour of solemn defeat: “the new realities of American politics forced him to abandon the wonkery that brought him to Capitol Hill in the first place,” McArdle hallucinates. More laughably still, she argues that Ryan’s “abdication of principle to assume the speakership was not simply a cynical bid for career advancement. Most congressmen avidly seek party leadership; by all accounts, Ryan really did have it thrust upon him. And then, Donald Trump was thrust upon him, too.”

Oh, please. It’s the dictionary definition of cynicism—and many far worse things—to publicly denounce a presidential candidate as a racist, and then embrace him as your party’s nominee, and devote all your political capital henceforth to enacting his agenda. The only thing “thrust upon” wonk-hero Ryan is this sort of gossamer mythmaking, cheerfully intoned as its own sort of talking-point mantra from on-the-make D.C. pundits from the neoliberal center to the libertarian right. This, indeed, is the real lesson of Ryan’s preposterous ascent: our pundit class needed Paul Ryan to exist, as an obliging projection-glyph who made it seem plausible that there was a serious policy agenda—indeed, a bona fide princeling of policy seriousness!—attached to the rampaging carnival of grift known as the American conservative movement. So our pundit class invented Paul Ryan, the tragically misunderstood wonk.

In point of fact, of course, the Paul Ryans of the world are all too easy to understand, since they eagerly tell you who they are at a Cato reception or over a couple of $350 bottles of wine alongside some fellow true-believing right-wing economists. The same can be said, of course, of our national politics correspondents, who are given to tire-swing getaways and elite-reactionary bacchanals of their own. Indeed, now that Ryan is poised to cash in as some kind of glorified lobbyist, D.C. journalists will probably be able to indulge their fondness for him more openly, in the approved mating rites of power in the shadows. Everyone will raise a glass in the great man’s honor, and perhaps someone a bit too indecorously in their cups will shout out something like “Here’s to the days when we all used to pretend to care about policy!”