Paul Ryan is not a fiscally conservative budget wonk, according to every single budget he ever proposed as Speaker of the House. Ryan swept into DC punditry lore as the white knight who would finally make good on the GOP’s long-avowed fiscal conservatism. After the exploding debts and deficits of the Reagan, Bush and Bush II years, America’s chief purveyors of both-sidesism convinced everyone that Paul Ryan was the unicorn who would finally deliver the Very Serious Person’s favorite government policy: fiscal conservatism.
Back in April, Michael Grunwald of Politico summarized Ryan’s fraudulence:
Ryan loves to talk about reducing the national debt, but what he loves to do is reduce taxes, which increases the national debt. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Republican tax bill President Donald Trump signed last year will produce an additional $1.5 trillion in red ink over the next decade. Ryan was also an exuberant supporter of the George W. Bush tax cuts, which have added more than $5 trillion to the debt since 2001. And he repeatedly proposed even larger tax cuts when he chaired the House Budget Committee. The Tax Policy Center calculated that the 2013 “Ryan budget,” for example, would have reduced federal revenue by nearly $6 trillion over a decade.
Talking about reducing the national debt was enough to convince wonks like Vox founder Ezra Klein that Ryan was a Very Serious Person, and yesterday he wrote a mea culpa.
The problem with all of mainstream D.C. punditry is that they are so enchanted by (white) people (well, men) who speak about budget wonkery in grave tones, that their actions become secondary to their statements. Twitter heavyweight champion of the world and soon-to-be official congressperson, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perfectly highlighted the elephant in the room.
Journalist Soledad O'Brien nailed the dynamic which took root, about how America's pundit class reached a conclusion on Ryan far too soon and then reverse-engineered reality to fit it.
Splinter's Paul Blest took Klein's mea culpa to task, and pointed out how Klein's explanation made him look like a heartless scold:
Vox founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein was perhaps the leading liberal proponent of the idea that Paul Ryan's hatred of deficits during the Obama years was misguided but rooted in something resembling sincerity. And now that the House Speaker is on his way out, Klein is boldly stepping forward to say that, hey, this Paul Ryan character might have been less than truthful about his real aims.
On Vox today, Klein writes (emphasis mine):
I didn't agree with Ryan's policies, but at least he was making the trade-offs of his vision clear. Here was a Republican who said what he was going to do, who admitted his health care plan included “rationing,” who offered something specific to argue with. That was progress.
Is it progress for someone who wants to destroy the safety net of poor people to admit in white papers that they want to destroy the safety net of poor people while campaigning on language about lifting up poor people? I don't think so, but then again, I've never started my own media empire, so.
Blest accurately points out that what made Ryan the darling of Very Serious establishment folks is still heinous. Even in Ezra Klein's 2018 retelling of his position, he still calls “rationing” health care “progress.” While Klein does deserve a good deal of credit for publicly owning his mistakes, how he explains it provides tremendous insight into the damaging and contradictory thinking which permeates all of D.C. punditry. Per Klein (emphasis mine):
To be clear, I am not particularly concerned about deficits right now, just as I wasn't in 2010. But I took Ryan seriously when he said he was. I covered the arguments Ryan made, the policies he crafted, and I treated them as if they offered a guide to how Republicans would govern.
Klein claims that his determination about Ryan's supposed fiscal conservatism was due to both what Ryan said and the “policies he crafted,” yet in the very next paragraph, Klein writes this (emphasis mine):
But now, as Ryan prepares to leave Congress, it is clear that his critics were correct and a credulous Washington press corps — including me — that took him at his word was wrong. In the trillions of long-term debt he racked up as speaker, in the anti-poverty proposals he promised but never passed, and in the many lies he told to sell unpopular policies, Ryan proved as much a practitioner of post-truth politics as Donald Trump.
How can Klein say that he looked at Ryan's policies—which directly contradicted Ryan's words time and time and time again—and then immediately turn around and say that taking Ryan “at his word was wrong”? What was he crafting Ryan's Very Serious Person shtick around? His policies or his words? It seems as if Klein is downplaying the policy perspective because if he had actually been analyzing Ryan based off the policies he promoted, he would have written this mea culpa far sooner.
This gets to the crux of the issue—that Very Serious D.C. folks mostly put up a facade of policy study, and they simply take (white male) politicians at their word, all while claiming that these (white male) politicians' words equal policy, because they are supposed policy wonks and we must trust their wonkery (to be fair, Klein earnestly dives into policy far more often than your average self-appointed wonk). But when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says that you “just pay for Medicare for All,” she is decried as unfit to serve in congress, yet Ryan repeating the long-disproven nonsense that tax cuts pay for themselves makes him a serious budget wonk. This is all just one big game of white D.C. dudebro telephone, and as Rob Rousseau, who occasionally writes for Paste points out, what is perhaps the most offensive part of all this is that people like Ezra Klein will not face any serious consequences for their gigantic mistakes which completely repudiate the Very Serious image of the person they claim to be.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.