To understand the secret of current Republican matinee idol Rep. Paul Ryan’s success, it’s necessary to grasp three essential elements of his popularity: First, he’s a handsome, telegenic fellow very good at faking sincerity. Maybe the best since disgraced Democrat John Edwards. If he weren’t a Catholic, Ryan would have made a brilliant televangelist. As an Irish-American funeral director, he’d have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Second, Ryan knew the exact moment to reposition himself to take advantage of the GOP’s hysterical freakout over U.S. budget deficits. See, as recently as January 19, 2009, George W. Bush was still president, the projected FY2009 deficit was a record $1.3 trillion, but relatively few Republicans had anything to say about it. And certainly not Rep. Ryan, who’d championed every one of the Bush administration’s budget-busting innovations, from the ill-advised tax cuts to the deficit-financed 2003 Medicare prescription-drug benefits.
Indeed, contrary to his image as a sober-sided deficit hawk, Jonathan Chait points out in an acerbic New York magazine profile, “Ryan was a staunch ally in Bush’s profligacy, dissenting only to urge Bush to jack up the deficit even more.” Specifically, Ryan urged even greater tax cuts for millionaires; in 2005, he proposed creating privatized Social Security accounts with an estimated $2 trillion in borrowed money for Wall Street to play with.
On January 21, 2009, however, a Democratic president took over. Hence budget deficits instantaneously became a mortal threat to the nation, and the Very Handsome Congressman transformed himself into “a figure of cinematic rectitude… America’s neighborhood accountant, a man devoted to the task of restoring our fiscal health.”
Third, and perhaps most important, the budgetary manifesto Ryan calls “The Path to Prosperity,” exists in the realm of pure theory, if not downright fantasy. It’s yet another exercise in GOP magical thinking, filled with preposterous assumptions and arithmetical sleight-of-hand. The numbers don’t need to add up, because everybody but the most gullible voters knows it will never be enacted. Republican congressmen voting for the fool thing did so in the certain knowledge that it was going nowhere in the Senate and would be vetoed by President Obama if it did.
Insofar as the scheme aims at anything other than advancing Ryan’s career, for once in his life Newt Gingrich got something right when he called it “right-wing social engineering.” In essence, it would amount to a massive wealth transfer from the poorest to the wealthiest Americans. Basically, Ryan proposes to reduce the income tax code to two rates, topping out at 25 percent, but keeping total government revenues constant by eliminating unspecified “loopholes.”