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A (Not So) Serious, (Not So) Honest Running Mate

Paul Krugman: Mr. Ryan is, in fact, a big fraud who doesnu2019t care at all about fiscal responsibility.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and vice presidential candidate US Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) attend a campaign rally at the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina, on August 12, 2012. (Photo: Eric Thayer/ The New York Times Syndicate)

Paul Ryan for vice president, or as Mitt Romney said at the press conference introducing Mr. Ryan as his running mate, “the next president of the United States.”

There is lots of horse-race speculation: It’s a disaster! No, it changes the conversation away from Bain and those missing tax returns! I have no idea who’s right.

What I do know is that anyone who believes in Mr. Ryan’s carefully cultivated image as a brave, honest policy wonk has been snookered. Mr. Ryan is, in fact, a big fraud who doesn’t care at all about fiscal responsibility, and whose policy proposals are sloppy as well as dishonest. Of course, this means that he’ll fit into the Romney campaign just fine.

As I said, I have no idea how this will play politically. But it does look like a move from weakness, rather than from strength; Romney obviously felt he needed a V.P. who will get people to stop talking about him.

The Real Target

Let me clarify what I believe is really going on in the choice of Paul Ryan as a vice presidential nominee. It is not about satisfying the conservative base, which was motivated anyway by Obama-hatred; it is not about refocusing on the issues, because Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney are both determined to avoid providing any of the crucial specifics about their plans. It is about exploiting the gullibility and vanity of the news media, in much the same way that President George W. Bush did in 2000.

Like Mr. Bush in 2000, Mr. Ryan has a completely undeserved reputation in the media as a bluff, honest guy, in Mr. Ryan’s case supplemented by a reputation as a serious policy wonk. None of this has any basis in reality; Mr. Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air — huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned.

So whence comes Mr. Ryan’s reputation? As I said, it’s because many commentators want to tell a story about American politics that makes them feel and look good — a story in which both parties are equally at fault in our national stalemate, and in which said commentators stand above the fray.

This story requires that there be good, honest, technically savvy conservative politicians, so that you can point to these politicians and say how much you admire them, even if you disagree with some of their ideas. After all, unless you lavish praise on some conservatives, you don’t come across as nobly even-handed.

The trouble, of course, is that it’s really, really hard to find any actual conservative politicians who deserve that praise. Mr. Ryan, with his flaky numbers (and actually very hardline stance on social issues), certainly doesn’t. But a large part of the commentariat decided early on that they were going to cast Mr. Ryan in the role of the Serious, Honest Conservative, and have been very unwilling to reconsider that casting call in the light of evidence.

So that’s the constituency Mr. Romney is targeting: not a large segment of the electorate, but a few hundred at most — editors, reporters, programmers and pundits. His hope is that Mr. Ryan’s unjustified reputation for honest wonkery will transfer to the ticket as a whole.

So, a memo to the news media: you have now become players in this campaign, not just reporters. Mitt Romney isn’t seeking a debate on the issues; on the contrary, he’s betting that your gullibility and vanity will let him avoid a debate on the issues, including the issue of his own fitness for the presidency.

I guess we’ll see if it works.