The Hero, Diminished

I’ve been wondering ever since Moderate Mitt came out of hiding after five years to beat his chest during the first presidential debate whether there’d be some serious conservative blowback. There wasn’t much, because (a) Romney didn’t really change any positions, but just postured as moderate and “bipartisan,” and (b) he “won,” and got a polling surge over the hated Obama.

But last night, it wasn’t the perpetually weasely Mitt who was doing the Moderate Mambo, but the Hero of Movement Conservatism, Paul Ryan, the man whose elevation to the ticket was designed to satisfy activists once and for all of Romney’s ideological bona fides.

And perhaps there are some stirrings of conservative dismay, as reflected in a reaction from BuzzFeed’s chief wingnut-watcher, McKay Coppins:

In the spin room after the vice presidential debate Thursday night, Republican operatives gamely described the face-off as a battle between good ideas and bad ideas; common sense and nonsense; forward-looking solutions and backward-looking defensiveness.

One thing it was not: a defining battle between conservatism and liberalism.

Paul Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket in August was supposed to reshape the presidential race into a sharp clash of ideologies — a battle of ideas that would present the electorate with a clear choice between the free-market ideals Ryan championed in the House, and the Obama administration’s government-centered populism.

But after a short, buzzy week of excitement immediately following his pick, Ryan’s reputation as a conservative movement leader was buried under a pile of disciplined talking points and running-mate grunt work. After effectively vanishing from the national stage, Ryan re-emerged Thursday not as the intellectual leader of the right, but as passable debater with a slightly crooked necktie.

Much as conservatives want to beat Barack Obama by any means necessary, they are also as likely as liberals to want this to be a clear choice of agendas yielding a big mandate. I’m not privy to their private reactions to all of Ryan’s talk about “bipartisanship” last night, but they couldn’t have been happy. Ryan the Hero is shrinking before their eyes, and at some point they may wonder if they, like Ryan himself, have traded their birthright once again for a mess of moderate pottage.

In non-ideological terms, Dave Weigel had a nice encapsulation of Ryan’s diminishment:

On Thursday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan was the guy who bow-hunted for fun and posed for pictures of his P90X workout. On Thursday night, he had been unfairly bullied by an old guy.

Yep, this is something to watch between now and November 6–and definitely afterwards, no matter who wins.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.