Why Paul Ryan is Presented as a “Serious” Republican Policy Wonk: Addendum

The media presents Paul Ryan as the Serious Republican Policy Wonk because the role has to be filled and he less bad than all the other actors who may audition for the role.

But Jamison Foser asks a key question that wasn’t answered in the previous post: Who is the serious Democrat in this scenario?

There are at least two ways to answer this. In the general sense, it’s Democrats in general. While there’s a good deal of bedwetting that goes on among Democrats in Washington, which in turn leads to bad policies (like everyone freaking out about a handful of Gitmo detainees being incarcerated on the US mainland or Khalid Sheik Muhammad supposedly being too dangerous to be tried in a civilian court), Democrats generally live in the world of reality. I think the criticisms are wrong, but it’s sometimes not insane to accuse some factions of the Democratic party of being beholden to teachers unions, or of being loathe to eliminate government programs or of being knee-jerk opponents of the responsible use of military power. (Even if one concedes that these allegations have some validity if limited to factions within the Democratic party, it’s fanciful to claim that the views of these factions dictate the final decisions made at either the executive or Congressional levels.)

Republicans, however, at least since the 1990’s, do not legislative or run the executive branch in a way that suggests they care about implementing policy that’s tied to reality. Abstinence education paired with cuts to family planning, climate change denial, the Laffer Curve and the whole supply side delusion, neo-con fantasies of remaking the Middle East by invading Iraq, the claims that privatizing and deregulating everything will unleash innovation & create wealth and that unregulated private industry will always act in the public good and never endanger the public…in almost every area of public policy, Democratic policies, while often flawed and compromised, are at least serious, and the policies and their advocates in the mainstream of the Republican party, at least since the 1990’s, are not.

The second answer, and the one that matters most for media storytelling, is Barack Obama and his administration. Even when an administration is deeply unserious, as was the case with the George W Bush administration, in the narrative template used by the American media, almost anything from the administration short of advocating travel to Mars is granted status as “serious.” Now, the Obama administration actually does take policy seriously and has chosen people to devise and implement policy for reasons other than their enrollment at Regent University law school.

The third way of answering Jamison’s question is by referring to individuals. Here and there one can find a serious conservative intellectual who cares about public policy, but who’s left in Congress that’s not a complete hack? On the Democratic side, I took a quick glance and came up with a whole bunch of members who are generally presented as people who are serious policy players. Looking only at members who’ve been in Congress for multiple terms, the list is still long. In the Senate, you’d have to include Barbara Boxer, Dick Durbin, Bill Nelson, Tom Harkin, John Kerry, Carl Levin, Debbie Stabenow, Jeff Bingaman, Ron Wyden, Jack Reed, Patrick Leahy and Maria Cantwell. In the House, this admittedly arbitrary list would include George Miller, Pete Stark, Zoe Lofgren, Howard Berman, Henry Waxman, Diana DeGette, Rosa DeLauro, Jan Schakowsky, Elijah Cummings, Jim McGovern, Barney Frank, Ed Markey, John Olver, Sander Levin, John Dingell, Rush Holt, Jerold Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, David Price, Mel Watt, Marcy Kaptur, Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Jim McDermott and Ron Kind. [I’m sure many, many members not on this list are quite knowledgeable about policy, but these are people who I know have some degree of notariety for possessing a solid grasp of policy.]

Which Republicans are worthy of being taken seriously and aren’t completely in the bag for some industry or constituency that results in them taking policy positions driven by shocking ignorance and/or corporate rather than public interests? In the Senate, Richard Lugar is rightfully respected on foreign affairs, Chuck Grassley takes seriously Congress’ role in providing oversight and ensuring government is efficient and effective, Olympia Snowe generally resides in the realm of reality, Lamar Alexander isn’t always a complete hack….and well, it’s hard for me to take anyone else seriously (although their past success as deal-makers means John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Orrin Hatch get honorary mention). In the House…well, huh. It’s hard to find many members who I’m aware of as people who take policy seriously and don’t believe crazy stuff; Judy Biggert maybe, Roscoe Bartlett’s an odd duck but he does take policy seriously and he believes in science, Fred Upton was a sober legislator who did serious work but he threw in with the climate change deniers to get the chair of the Commerce and Energy committee, then there’s…uh…hmmm.

Well, maybe that’s it.  So, as you can see, Paul Ryan doesn’t have much competition for being cast in the role of Serious Republican Policy Wonk.

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One Response to Why Paul Ryan is Presented as a “Serious” Republican Policy Wonk: Addendum

  1. Pobre says:

    Paul Ryan is an interesting guy. He’s looking for that role that Jack Kemp (and to a lesser degree John Kasich) once held – that is, the self-proclaimed deep thinker and policy workforce. Kemp re-cast himself as a quasi-economist (despite being a PE major) after he grew tired of signing football cards at political rallies. He wanted to be more than a dumb jock … and, the media seemed fascinated with the thought that there could be brains behind the muscles. Ryan (kinda like Kasich) re-cast himself as a numbers guy after the baby-face, boy-wonder thing started to wear thin. He has a chip on his shoulder to prove that he’s a serious guy to compensate for the fact that he didn’t have much of a resume coming into Congress. In the 1994 wave, the freshman who wanted this role was Ryan old boss Sam Brownback. If Brownback had stayed in the House, he might have matured like Ryan. But, when Brownback decided to challenge a GOP incumbent for a US Senate seat, he figured out that theology does more to excite the base than economic policy. Ryan’s career problem is that he’s going to be typecast. Policy wonks get some credibility … but Republicans don’t look to them as leaders. These guys never make top House leadership. And, they have to go away and get gray hair before people will consider them for higher office. Ryan has all the ambition in the world. My bet is that he’s peaking for the time-being. He’s enjoying TIME magazine covers. But, if he wants to make it big, he needs to go away for a couple of cycles. Then, he can pop back up as a Governor or Senator.

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