Paul Ryan Naysayers: Whom Were They Hoping For?
The GOP has so damaged its reputation with conservatives that even a rare reasonable decision is met with a measure of cynicism from some quarters. Beneath the inevitable immediate wave of enthusiasm for the choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate, one also notices a faction of naysayers, one likely to grow as the initial excitement dies down: constitutionalists who see the Ryan selection as just the same old, same old from the Republican Party establishment.
The very fact that the establishment approves of someone is now regarded by many as prima facie grounds for suspicion. Thus it is that the choice of Ryan is garnering extremely cautious kudos from some conservatives, and a resounding "So what?" from others.
Allow me to emphasize that I am not criticizing the skeptics. They are right to be skeptical, after having watched their champions and agenda being repeatedly muffled or held at a distance by the GOP inner circle precisely when they and their message are most urgently needed. During these critical years of civilizational life-or-death struggle, the traditional moderate argument against highlighting conservative principles -- "conservatives are unelectable" -- has been blown full of holes by the rise of the Tea Party, the 2010 midterms, Scott Walker's victorious stand in Wisconsin, and so on. Yet the establishment has continued to resist the call to constitutionalist renewal. Why, then, should conservatives trust the GOP?
While perhaps not trusting, however, one can, following Reagan's Cold War slogan, seek to verify. Wondering whether Ryan will live up to expectations is reasonable. He was, after all, one of the first prominent conservatives to get behind the establishment candidate during the final stages of the GOP primaries. He voted for Bush's prescription drug plan. He voted for TARP. And the auto bailout. And one can, no doubt, find other questionable decisions and votes over the years.
On the other hand, he is the man personally responsible for the moment's only viable comprehensive attack on the nation's debt. He has put his neck on the block legislatively, not merely "advocating" entitlement reform in the abstract, which most Republicans do as a matter of talking-point duty, but actually putting his name on a specific plan to begin unraveling the entitlement threads with which the suffocating sack of fiscal irresponsibility has been sewn shut over America's future.
Liberals dislike him for the best reason -- namely, because they fear him. He articulates the nature of the nation's fiscal crisis, and the need for entitlement reform, with a clarity that pre-empts the typical accusations of "heartlessness" that the left hurls mindlessly at everyone who opposes unconstitutional government. And while those who see the enormity of the catastrophe awaiting America might argue -- correctly, I believe -- that the final Ryan budget, on its face, does not go far enough, one must not lose sight of the inevitable gulf between the ideal and the practically realizable. Had Ryan proposed legislation that would do what this moment really requires, the plan would likely never have made it past John Boehner's trash bin.
Instead, Ryan's plan, shortcomings notwithstanding, has played a central role in shifting public discussion of the economy, and specifically of the debt, onto more rational ground, making calls for substantial overhaul a mainstream idea, rather than something easily dismissible as a libertarian pipe-dream.
Recall that Newt Gingrich's initial reaction to Ryan's proposal, less than two years ago, was to shrink from it as too extreme, as "right-wing social engineering." Ryan's success in shifting the goal-markers on this issue is evidenced by the fact that his plan, which made Republicans nervous in its initial stages, has now made Ryan a darling of the GOP's middlebrow "elite," even while it comes under increasing fire from some conservatives as too timid a plan to solve the economic crisis. It is easy to criticize Ryan's plan as insufficient now. Not long ago, it seemed too ambitious to get past a Milquetoast Congress. Ryan has fundamentally transformed the debate.
Saving civilization, or what is left of it, would seem to demand two kinds of political leaders. First, it requires people of intransigent principle, whose nature is to speak truth to power, even at the cost of short-term rejection. Such people sometimes lack practical efficacy, but without them, renewal on the scale modernity requires would be impossible.
But success also requires a kind of leader willing to find a way to take society through the intermediate, transitional steps on the road to ultimate revitalization. This kind of leadership is less glamorous, as it leaves one open to being confused with unprincipled compromisers. What such people display, in truth, is not a lack of principle, but a willingness to perform the workmanlike task of paving the road from point A to point B.
The difference between the two types of leader is analogous to the distinction between a great theorist on the nature of the human psyche and the clinician who has worked out sound strategies for leading disturbed minds back to the healthy state. The first man tells us what it means to live well as a human being -- i.e., what we ought to be striving for. The second, immersing himself in the quagmire of lost souls, helps individuals to make the difficult transition from a life of bad habits and squandered gifts to one of rational purpose and sound choices.
Both kinds of leaders are necessary at the moment: the first kind, because civilization has lost its directional principles and needs to have the basic desire for freedom, individualism, and personal responsibility rekindled; the second kind, because, all wishful thinking aside, modern American society seems no longer to be "basically conservative," and thus, many people need to be coaxed gently along the path to a liberty they no longer crave in their blood, as ordinary people once did.
Is Paul Ryan the first kind of leader? Perhaps not, or not yet. But he may be the second kind -- a man of practical efficacy, an intelligent clinician who is prepared to do the messy, difficult work of talking a reluctant, entitlement-and-gratification-sated society through those necessary intermediate steps to revitalization.
Those who objected to Romney being the Republican nominee -- I was vehemently one of them -- had every reason to expect him to choose a running mate who would appeal to the "moderates" and deliver a swift backhand to "conservatives" -- i.e., to those throughout the Western world who see that modernity has reached a point of no return and must undergo a renewal of Great Flood proportions if freedom, adulthood, and rationality are to survive. Romney didn't deliver that backhand. Instead, he chose a man who has been an articulate foreteller of doom on the fiscal front, and an effective advocate of practical means to avoiding that doom.
So let's see: Romney's running mate is not an Ivy League establishmentarian. He doesn't even have a graduate degree, let alone a law degree. His first important job in Washington was as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp, the last genuine Reaganite to run on a GOP presidential ticket. He speaks without embarrassment about the influence of Ayn Rand -- the spiritual founder of libertarianism -- on his political views, and has even encouraged his staffers to read Rand's works.
Does any of this make him a perfect constitutional conservative? Does it prove him to be above reproach or criticism? Does it mean his mind and methods are a certain path to conservative victory, either against the Democrats in November or against progressivism and its societal decay in the long run? No, no, and no.
But my question to those who, as I am, are instinctively inclined to distrust the GOP establishment's decisions is this: whom were you hoping for? Ryan has a good congressional record, and not merely as a principled conservative, but also as a man capable of dragging important and difficult ideas through the legislative process. He has exposed himself in the name of conservative principle with the kind of substantive entitlement reform proposals that constitutionalists always hope someone will make in earnest. He is a devotee of Hayek and Friedman and therefore understands that economic freedom is inseparable from individual liberty in general, and cannot be curtailed without the loss of constitutionally-protected rights. Could anyone have expected more of Romney's VP choice?
He has made some political misjudgments -- including some pretty big ones. So, regrettably, have most men of substance. The most revered American conservative politician of the past eighty years gave the answer for the ages to questions about accepting blame for past errors: "Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat."
The greatest real cause for concern with Ryan popped up in Romney's introduction of him in Norfolk, Virginia. Romney lauded him as a man who does not "demonize" opponents, and who can "find common ground" with "people of both parties."
Those are pretty words, but they completely miss the tone of the moment. Western civilization is in a pitched battle for survival with forces that would undo the great practical achievements of modernity -- political and intellectual freedom, widespread prosperity, and material comfort -- in favor of a return to the mass degradations of the worst forms of authoritarian government. The vanguard of those regressive forces has found its American home within the Democrat Party. Its continued success depends entirely on the opposition failing to recognize the seriousness of the stakes.
This is not the moment to lead through "collegiality." If "Finding common ground" is the campaign slogan for 2012, Obama wins, and America is all but lost. A more suitable slogan would be "A line in the sand." The left's march "forward" must be resisted without reservation, and with every tool in the conservative belt, whether that sounds collegial or not.
Ryan has the principles and intellect to play an important role in this effort. The question he must answer now, particularly as Romney's running mate, is whether he has the stomach for it.
In the meantime, those who enjoy quick knockouts can look forward to the vice presidential debate.