The New Stockman?

Jonathan Chait looked a little more closely than I did at Jonathan Martin’s Politico piece this morning on Paul Ryan’s recent loss of cool-kid status, and found something interesting that I missed. Martin reports Ryan’s supporters as fretting over his “green eyeshade” reputation, and Chait quite accurately reports that this label is one strongly deplored by anyone coming up in the Jack Kemp/supply-side faction like Ryan did.

But this very reputation, of course, is what made Ryan a Very Serious Person in the eyes of deficit hawks and Beltway pundits generally, and greatly facilitated his rise up the greasy pole of congressional Republican politics. So if he now wants to do something other than chairing the Budget Committee (say, run for president), he will have to undertake what Chait calls an “un-rebranding:”

Martin’s piece does a nice job of capturing Ryan’s political dilemma. Ryan not only rebranded himself, he rebranded himself too well. The tea-party debt-hysteria message now strikes some Republican honchos as a loser. They want a more “optimistic” message.

So now Ryan has to, essentially, un-re-brand himself. His supporters plead that he is not “merely” a green eyeshade Republican. Stripped of the euphemism, they’re saying, Paul Ryan isn’t merely an advocate of fiscal responsibility, he is also … the exact opposite of one.

If Chait’s right, Ryan has fallen into the same trap as his predecessor as a celebrity conservative budget maven, David Stockman, who was a rabid supply-sider before becoming Ronald Reagan’s budget director and getting deficit fever. When it became apparent to Stockman that his fellow conservatives wanted promiscuous tax cuts without having the guts to insist on the spending cuts needed to pay for them, he raised alarms, and before long was Mr. Nobody in Republican politics.

It’s not clear that Ryan or his fans have figured a way out of the trap that snared Stockman, but now as then, it’s a trap the entire conservative movement and the Republican Party keep setting for themselves.

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.