There are lots of reasons to read Jonathan Chait’s thorough demolition of “The Legendary Paul Ryan” at New York. It offers a good, bracing reminder that Ryan is far-and-away the most important GOP politician at the moment, a man to whom Mitt Romney has largely deferred in crafting an agenda for his own administration, if he has one. It explores Ryan’s media celebrity, and particularly his appeal to Very Serious “centrist” deficit hawks. It mocks his Super-Wonk image, and his pose as a brave enemy of wasteful spending wherever it can be found.
But for my money, the most important service Chait provides in this article is to document Ryan’s roots in the sub-wing of the conservative movement famous for not giving a damn about federal budget deficits, the original supply-siders led by Ryan’s own idol Jack Kemp. These were people who were horrified by what they called the “root canal” spending cuts endlessly promoted by traditional conservatives obsessed with “green-eyeshade” budget-balancing. Ryan was prominent among those who carried this tradition into a new millenium:
Ryan has, retroactively, depicted himself as a dissenter from the fiscal profligacy of the Bush administration, and reporters have mostly accepted his account at face value. (“Ryan watched his party’s leadership inflate the deficit by cutting tax rates like Kemp conservatives while spending like Kardashians,” wrote Time last year.) In reality, Ryan was a staunch ally in Bush’s profligacy, dissenting only to urge Bush to jack up the deficit even more.
“We noticed that the green-eyeshade, austerity wing of the party was afraid of class warfare,” Ryan said during Bush’s first term. “They fear increases in the debt, and they were overlooking issues of growth, opportunity, and free markets.” For those uninitiated in the tribal lingo of Beltway conservatives, this may sound like gibberish. But those inside the conservative subculture invest these buzzwords with deep meaning. “Green eyeshade” is a term of abuse appropriated by the supply-siders to describe Republicans who still cared more about deficit control than cutting taxes. “Growth” and “opportunity” mean tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich, and “class warfare” means any criticism thereof. Ryan’s centrist admirers hear his frequent confessions that both parties have failed as an ideological concession. What he means is that Republicans were insufficiently fanatical in their devotion to cutting taxes for the rich….
In 2001, Ryan led a coterie of conservatives who complained that George W. Bush’s $1.2 trillion tax cut was too small, and too focused on the middle class. In 2003, he lobbied Republicans to pass Bush’s deficit-Âfinanced prescription-drug benefit, which bestowed huge profits on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. In 2005, when Bush campaigned to introduce private accounts into Social Security, Ryan fervently crusaded for the concept. He was the sponsor in the House of a bill to create new private accounts funded entirely by borrowing, with no benefit cuts. Ryan’s plan was so staggeringly profligate, entailing more than $2 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, that even the Bush administration opposed it as “irresponsible.”
The important thing to grasp here is that for all the talk about Paul Ryan being the “adult in the room” who understands the “tough choices” needed to confront the “debt crisis,” everything we know about him suggests that fiscal probity is at best a third-order motive for his proposals to decimate the social safety net. More important to him is that the spending cuts he supports are necessary to finance still more regressive tax cuts, and furthermore, are positive social measures in and of themselves. Like the pirate Ragnar Danneskjold, a character in Ryan’s favorite book Atlas Shrugged, who sinks aid ships as a moral gesture aimed at the “looting” of the successful, Ryan would object to safety net programs even if the federal budget was in surplus:
“It is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big or the health-care plan doesn’t work for this or that policy reason,” Ryan said in 2009. “It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack, and it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on.” Ryan’s philosophical opposition to a government that forces the “makers” to subsidize the “takers”—terms he still employs—is foundational; the policy details are secondary.
This is the sort of talk that gets Ryan regularly in trouble (most notably with the Bishops of his own Catholic Church), which is an indication of how strongly he must believe in it. Yet he manages to maintain his fiscal-hawk street cred and his reputation for gravitas despite all the indications that he’d triple the deficit if necessary to cut taxes for the wealthy and remains in the grip of a philosophy that treats Medicaid beneficiaries as thieves who are morally debasing themselves. It’s quite a crowning achievement.