Someone needs to say it: Paul Ryan is this year’s Sarah Palin. This comparison is not to deny the considerable differences between then: Ryan has far more government experience, influence within his party, and facility with the English language. Indeed, he is touted as the intellectual among his Republican peers, the man of New Ideas and Big Ideas. Palin, by contrast–well, we don’t need to go there. In any case she was known primarily for her clothing and performative panache. No professor or liberal, she. Or he, for that matter:
This image of Ryan hitting the stage in Fisherville, Virginia, could be right out of a country western concert. Look at those boots, for example–not typical gear in either Wisconsin (where he lives) or at Miami University of Ohio (where he went to college), but he’s stylin’ now. (Likewise, Sarah from Alaska had no trouble shopping in New York City; it’s where you’re going, not where you’re from, right?) More to the point, every detail of Ryan’s entrance is pitched perfectly for the big stage. He is a young, energetic, accomplished performer, and he knows how to play to the crowd.
And that’s where the comparisons start getting more than skin deep. Palin and Ryan are energizing the same, extreme, right-wing base of the Republican party. They both look good where it really counts: they are ideologically doctrinaire, populist demagogues who can light up a stage because they have boundless ambition and no qualms about anyone or anything else. And, most important, they are equally vacuous about any of the policies they pitch.
Despite his superior polish, Ryan has said nothing that is any better than Palin’s garbled nonsense. His new ideas are the same tired, flawed, failed ideas that Republicans have been pushing since 1980: cut taxes, cut government services, and deregulate all business, all to transfer wealth upward in the hope that a bit more will trickle down again. And big ideas? Well, these are the same ideas as above but scaled up for maximum impact: Don’t cut taxes, make them ever lower at the top and ever more regressive across the board; don’t negotiate workable solutions, ram through draconian policies and count on the market to take care of everything else. Ryan can’t deliver the goods–actual programmatic details, actual budget numbers, independent budget assessments–any more than Palin could. He just sings better.
It gets worse, as Palin probably was so out of her league that she didn’t have to lie. She could just make stuff up because that’s all she knew. With Ryan, however, it’s harder to believe that he isn’t knowingly bending the truth. The Times article accompanying the photo put the matter well when it said that “his convention speech was like Christmas morning for fact-checkers.” Which is odd, because intellectuals aren’t supposed to lie, or to be so deluded that they can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction.
Paul Ryan is no more an intellectual than Sarah Palin. In fact, he is Palin Heavy: just a more expensive, higher impact version of the original. Neither one should be entrusted with the hard work of actually governing in a democratic society.
Photograph by Josh Haner/The New York Times. The photo accompanied this profile of Ryan in the New York Times Magazine.