Friday, 19 October 2012

He Ain’t No Henry Clay: Paul Ryan the Bipartisan?

In third grade I had a classmate named Tommy Willis. Each day when Tommy Willis walked into the classroom, my hand immediately clenched up and I was filled with an irresistible urge to bring my fist in contact with his face. It was a strange physiological reaction, which was only stayed by the daunting threat of Sr. Christine Joseph, I.H.M. Why did Tommy Willis stir up such unrestrained violence in an eight year old? He just had that look.

Paul Ryan also has that look. And though one could commit a number of indulgent paragraphs to emphasizing characteristics like his sixth grade haircut or his smarmy smirk, we’ll try to get to the meat of the matter. Of course, in Ryan’s case, we’re talking minced meat with a good proportion of pink slime.

During the VP debate, the man who gave up fear for lent didn’t come off like the freedom fighter his base makes him out to be. The tea party portrays Ryan as a four-leaf clover in politics – as a man who will end Obama’s reign of tyranny and restore democracy by limiting government. But for a party that wants limited government, they certainly seem to be selective about when that government ought to be limited.

When abortion managed to creep up in the debate, Ryan relayed a touching story about how his son “bean” was nicknamed after his fetal form. This heartfelt moment in Ryan’s life shored up his motivation to outlaw abortion. Biden was quick to deflect viewers' attention to the point, emphasizing that the next president will likely nominate two Supreme Court justices, both of whom, under an R&R administration, would likely turn the tides on Row v. Wade. He left us to infer what the implication might be for other social issues, such as gay marriage. So, when the tea party flies the freedom flag and demands limited government, it’s not without its exceptions. They want to have their pink slime and eat it too. 

What we need more than ever is someone who can reach across the aisle and bring Republicans and Democrats together. Ryan seems to have garnered that reputation among Republicans. This is, however, a curious myth that lacks any semblance of support. After a number of questionable poster children, ranging from Sarah Palin to Rick Santorum, the tea party seems to have cast its lot with Ryan. That is a dubious honor for the prospective Vice-president. For is there a more divisive force in US politics than the tea party?

As Biden pointed out at the debate, Ryan (and Romney) signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes. That is never. Under no circumstances. If elected, Ryan’s principle role as Vice-president will be to proceed over the senate.  Is a prisoner of the Norquist pledge someone who can be a facilitator of compromise?

Above all else, Ryan is praised for being a fiscal hawk. But his plan for cutting the deficit is no less vague than Romney’s. Ryan was asked on “Morning Joe” exactly what cuts need to be made in order for his plan to work.

His answer? 

“We’re talking $5.3 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years, so I could go on and on. The point I would simply say is I believe that it is not the politically risky thing anymore. I believe the wrong thing, just from a political stand point, is ducking this issue.”

Of course, by not going on and on, Ryan is ducking the issue. It takes a unique arrogance to make the budget the centerpiece of one’s campaign, but not provide any substantive information about it.

Oh yeah, and there is that other little issue about the marathon that still sticks in my craw. In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Ryan claimed to have run a marathon in under 3 hours. In fact, as it turns out, his time was just above 4 hours. This might not seem substantial for those of us who do not frequently engage in marathons. But, as Nicholas Thompson points out in his piece in the New Yorker, this time discrepancy is the difference between finishing in the bottom-half or in the top 4%.

Ryan’s comment has been written off by some as an honest mistake and a slip of the tongue. But everyone I have spoken to who has ever run a marathon seems to disagree. The testimonies in Thompson’s article are similar to the ones I’ve received. One runner I spoke with explained it to me in golf terms as the difference between shooting in the mid-eighties (me) and shooting in the mid-sixties (Tiger Woods). In itself, it may be a small issue, but it exposes a larger character flaw.

Since 2008, Republicans have been looking for a counterpart to Obama – a hip new energetic force that would invigorate the stale party. Whenever experimenting with a new style, however, you get some embarrassing combinations (Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Christine O’Donnell). The Republican party is not unlike a newly single retiree who, ready for his first date in years, breaks out the polyester only to discover it’s no longer on the razors edge of fashion.

As the country grows more tolerant, the far-right is steadily losing ground. But in the short-term, the divide that is paralyzing our country grows wider. If someone from the Republican Party could step up and cast off the limiting reigns of the tea party, the rest of the lackeys who have committed themselves to far right doctrine may follow suit. That bellwether has yet to step up. We’re stuck with a Paul Ryan. What we need is a Henry Clay. 

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