Decimating Great Society Not Obviously An “Economic Plan”

It’s been interesting over the last two days watching the reaction of Republicans to Romney’s Veep pick. Most are surprised and happy for much the same reason that Democrats are surprised and happy: it goes a long way towards making this a “choice” election with direct rather than covert ideological consequences. Given Romney’s history, most conservatives were naturally nervous about their nominee’s fidelity, and choosing Ryan was a bit like donning a chastity belt.

But among Republicans whose job it is to supply political analysis, the reaction has been a little different. The pure hacks, of course, applauded The Leader’s decision and cackled about its brilliance, as they would have had Romney put Tagg on the ticket, viz. Joe Curl:

Make no mistake: Mr. Obama tossed and turned through a sleepless slumber after word leaked out at midnight Friday that Mr. Romney had picked Mr. Ryan. He knows the choice was indeed a game-changer — one that will leave him very little room to distract and deceive voters about his dismal record. And he knows he cannot run and hide, not now.

Bark bark woof woof.

More detached conservative political analysts viewed the Ryan selection as a mixed bag of possible positives and definite risks. RCP’s Sean Trende didn’t sugar-coat the latter:

[I]t opens up an Obama landslide scenario for the first time. I’ve always thought that Obama wouldn’t be able to win more than a two-to-three-point re-election victory, mainly because a president almost never wins the votes of people who disapprove of the job that he is doing, and Obama’s approval rating is unlikely to be much above 50 percent on Election Day. But, while I don’t think it’s guaranteed, this really does give Democrats an opportunity to make Romney so radioactive that people who don’t like the president nevertheless vote for him. If the white working class revolts at the prospect of the Ryan plan, Obama really could match, or even exceed, his 2008 showing.

These types of picks rarely end well. When we think back on the “bold” or “unexpected” picks in history, they rarely have good outcomes. Agnew in ’68, Eagleton in ’72, Ferraro in ’84, Quayle in ’88, Kemp in ’96, Palin in ’08 are all looked back on with disfavor. The “good” choices were almost always “safe” choices.

What strikes me most about elite conservative reaction, however, is the assumption that the choice of Ryan reinforces the Romney campaign’s focus on Obama’s economic record. This succinct assertion by the Daily Mail‘s Toby Harnden is something you will hear echoed again and again:

Ryan, the House Budget chairman, will bring entitlement reform, debt and deficit cutting and tough but necessary fiscal choices to centre stage. For Romney to win, this election has to be about the economy – choosing Ryan helps ensure this will be the case.

Is that so? Only if you accept the premise that federal spending–or more specifically, the “entitlement crisis”–is the cause of the current economic trouble. I’m the first to admit that progressives have failed to persuade a clear majority of Americans that Keynsianism is the proper response to the Great Recession and the sluggish recovery. But anyone who thinks conservatives have persuaded a clear majority of Americans that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as they exist today are incompatible with a strong economy is sucking on a bottomless crack pipe. And the idea that Paul Ryan is such a wizard with charts and graphs that he’ll be able to accomplish in a few weeks what conservatives have failed to do for nearly a half-century is living in an ideological la-la land as well.

This is not to say that Romney-Ryan can’t win. And Lord knows if they do win, conservatives will interpret Ryan’s presence on the ticket as “proving” there’s a mandate to do all sorts of things that most swing voters would never support. But it’s just ludicrous to believe that Ryan is the Veep candidate who most exemplifies the supposed GOP focus on the economy. Ryan embodies exactly what Barry Goldwater embodied in 1964–a systematic rejection of the post-World War II bipartisan policy consensus in favor of a return to a pre-New Deal vision of limited government, regressive taxation and “traditional values,” modified by a Cold War commitment to a gigantic and aggressive defense establishment. Ryan, like his most avid supporters, would promote exactly, identicaly, the same agenda in any conceivable economic circumstances. Whatever the Romney-Ryan agenda can be spun to “mean,” it ultimately has little to do with a laser-focus determination to revive the U.S. economy, and honest conservatives really ought to admit it.

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.