Jonathan Chait at New York magazine noted recently that people are still trying to cast Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as reasonable and moderate – hey, he visits bookstores favored by liberals.
As Mr. Chait pointed out, this sort of political evaluation by personal style is unreliable at best. And Mr. Ryan quite clearly exploits it, too – making moderate noises without ever giving an inch on his hard-line, right-wing policies. Remember, this is the guy who pretended to offer a budget based on fiscal responsibility, but when you took out the magic asterisks, it really consisted of tax cuts for the rich and severe benefit cuts for the poor, and had it gone into effect, would have actually increased the deficit.
I would add that Mr. Ryan isn’t just exploiting the press corps’ preference for up-close-and-personal over policy analysis; he’s also exploiting the eternal search for a Serious, Honest Conservative, a creature centrists know must be out there somewhere (because otherwise their centrism is a colossal error of judgment).
But let’s not make this just about Mr. Ryan, or even about conservatism (although conservatives have been the main beneficiaries of the up-close-and-personal syndrome). The fact is that attempts to judge politicians by how they come across have been almost universally disastrous during my whole tenure at The New York Times.
Younger readers may not remember the days when President George W. Bush was universally portrayed in the press as a bluff, honest guy. But those of us who pointed to his lies about taxes and Social Security and suggested that these were a better guide to his character than how he came across got nowhere until years later. Senator John McCain rode for many years on a reputation as a principled maverick, because that’s the way he talked; I think his shameless embrace of every right-wing twist and turn has dented that reputation, but he’s still the darling of Sunday morning talk shows.
And then, of course, there was the irrefutable case for invading Iraq in 2003, irrefutable because Colin Powell, then secretary of state, made it, and only a fool or a Frenchman could fail to be persuaded. Or, maybe, someone who asked what actual evidence Mr. Powell had presented, and noticed that there wasn’t any.
Meanwhile, some public figures face the reverse treatment, portrayed as evil and devious because reporters have decided that this is how they come across. Take Hillary Clinton, whose harsh treatment by the press has nothing to do with her gender, no way, no how. Or Mitt Romney, portrayed as smarmy and unlikable because – well, actually, he is smarmy and unlikable, but you should reach that judgment based on his policies, not his persona.
To return to Mr. Ryan, the really amazing thing about the persistence of his personality cult is that economic and budget policy is his chosen area, and he’s left a broad paper trail.
So there’s plenty of evidence about what he really believes and stands for, every bit of which says that his overriding goal is to redistribute income from the poor to the 1%.
If you want to claim otherwise, show me anything – anything at all – in his policy proposals that doesn’t go in that direction.