It should surprise no one that the bar for qualifying as an intelligent person is pretty low in America, especially in our glurge factory of a media. Yet the most alarming aspect of Mitt Romney's "bold" decision to cave to the big GOP money and shackle himself to the anchor that is Paul Ryan is the repeated references to his new partner's considerable intellectual gifts. Given that we now live in a world in which shows about Honey Boo Boo and married couples with 19 children are on something with the gall to call itself "The Learning Channel", it makes sense that Paul Ryan would qualify as an "intellectual". But it is a Book of Revelations-level warning sign of the misguided Moderation Worship among the bobbleheads of the Beltway media that in their desperation to say something good about the cargo cult of nihilists that is the modern GOP, they have decided that Paul Ryan is a deeply intellectual man of ideas and principles – a leading thinker of his day.
That their decision to so label Ryan coincides almost perfectly with the storyline pitched in the campaign press releases is irrelevant, as they decided back in 2010 that, apparently on account of the fact that he has no personality whatsoever, he must be a man of great intellectual Seriousness. We have all made the mistake in our social lives of assuming that someone who is really quiet and reserved must have something interesting to say. We generally learn our lesson after a few bad dates, however, and the stakes are nowhere near as high as they are when the media decides to take leave of its senses. Whatever the psychology, there is not enough alarm at the fact that our media have decided that the quiet, weasely, dead-eyed weirdo who likes to write manifestos (!!!) of his Darwinist view of the world must be, by virtue of his lack of car salesman / televangelist bluster, a genuine, bona fide Intellectual. If he's not politician handsome or articulate, surely he must be brilliant; to conclude otherwise would be to admit that his ancestors' money got him elected. Somewhere in Janesville, Wisconsin an equivalent man without wealth and means looks at Ryan on the TV during his night shift at Shoney's and laments, "That could have been me."
Ryan's qualifications as a Great Thinker appear to be as follows:
1. He can write something 96 whole pages long. Even though much of it is alarming-looking but factually errant graphs, no one who can write almost 100 pages about a Serious subject like the budget can be less than a genius to the Wolf Blitzers of the world.
2. He "makes tough choices", which is to say that he enjoys writing about ideas that will make a lot of people suffer. He didn't come up with any of said ideas, but he says things (on paper – more on that in a second) that are politically unpopular. And they are politically unpopular because they are essentially recitations of his idol Ayn Rand's "The rich are different, and they owe no one anything" worldview. His ideas are unpopular because, unless you are a titan of industry or child of inherited wealth, he is trying very hard to fuck you.
3. He talks a lot about ideas. Terrible ideas, yes, but ideas nonetheless. The media are so desperate for any politician, especially on the right, to meet their superficial criteria for Seriousness that they're too busy making goo-goo eyes and trying to hide their erections to ask if the ideas are any good. Or, you know, if they are total, fabricated-from-whole-cloth bullshit. He has Ideas. That's enough.
4. His ideas have been around long enough to be digested with ease in the Beltway. That is, nothing he's saying is original, so the Panelists and Columnists and Hosts don't actually have to learn anything new. This is just standard Drown It In the Bathtub boilerplate with some shiny graphics and a rambling, college research paper-style introduction.
In the three-ring idiot circus of 21st Century American politics, that is what it takes to be a certified Thinker. When you're in love you can overlook a lot of flaws in the target of your affections, often with painful results. The slobbering love affair with Ryan, driven by the media's mortal terror at being accused of Dreaded Liberal Bias if they fail to treat Republicans and their ideas as just-as-good in every way, has prominent media personalities to overlook some glaring holes in the Congressman's intellectual foundations.
First, his copiously lauded budget proposal is more vague than anyone who has not read it would believe. If I told you, for example, that the basis of his entire proposal is trillions of dollars in tax cuts (almost all for the…well, go ahead and guess who) to be offset by "closing loopholes in the tax code" you would not be shocked. If I then told you that not one single specific example is given in the entire document, you would not believe me. You would accuse me of orchestrating a smear on his budget, because no one could possibly take it seriously if it was based on decimating tax revenue and then, uh, somehow balancing this out with, uh, something else. Yet that is exactly what is found in his Brilliant Repository of Economic Genius: nothing. It is an Underpants Gnome proposal: cut taxes + ???? = PROFITS!
Second, and far more importantly, a Man of Ideas would not feel the need to misrepresent them in the face of even the most mildly skeptical audience. Ryan can enrapture an audience at the Cato Institute or local Objectivist society and he can sound downright brilliant to the Steve Kings and Jim Inhofes of the world. But give him something other than a softball or a blowjob and suddenly he doesn't hate government nearly as much as you've been led to believe, as Charles Pierce notes.
When I pointed out to Ryan that government spending programs were at the heart of his home town's recovery, he didn't disagree. But he insisted that he has been misunderstood. "Obama is trying to paint us as a caricature," he said. "As if we're some bizarre individualists who are hardcore libertarians. It's a false dichotomy and intellectually lazy." He added, "Of course we believe in government. We think government should do what it does really well, but that it has limits, and obviously within those limits are things like infrastructure, interstate highways, and airports."(Nick Lizza, New Yorker)
To understand Ryan, his worship of Rand, Hayek, and the like, and his own budget proposal is to understand that he believes nothing of the sort. He might believe that government should pay private corporations to build things like infrastructure, highways, and airports, but that is another story altogether. Paul Ryan, Boy Genius, is such an intellectual coward that he will not even be honest about what he believes and what his proposals would do to government. He wants the social safety net to disappear, but only with the caveat of excluding anyone currently enjoying its benefits – you know, the people who might vote against him if they have to make any sacrifices on his account.
The Republican Party never has been good at the soft sell, but you can't say they don't try. A long string of pitch men, alternating between phony populists (Bush, Reagan, etc.) and pseudo-intellectuals (Phil Gramm, Newt, Ryan, etc.), has tried its damndest to convince you, the Little Guy, that the GOP is really on your side. That Ryan is the latest choice to deliver its message – Serve the Plutocracy and it will reward you! – is puzzling. Here is a guy who can't even pull off enough of a smile to qualify as a smiling killer, an elected official with so few of the skills native to politicians that the media must pretend he is brilliant in order to give him a redeeming quality. And that will be his ultimate downfall. No matter how often we are told that he is an Intellectual, he lacks the guile to hide what he really is: a Randian hatchet man who learned everything from his privileged upbringing except how to act like he cares about other people.