Republicans who for decades have dreamt of a new Ronald Reagan are now cooking up the fantasy that Paul Ryan is their man: a “blue-collar conservative” who will renew their party’s appeal to those elusive “Reagan Democrats.” The theory relies on a little bit of geography, a little bit of demographic data and a whole lot of self-deception.
Ryan does come from a blue-collar town: Janesville, Wisconsin, historically an automaking community where union ties run deep and Democratic margins are strong. And Ryan does have Irish Catholic roots, just like many of the blue-collar voters whose ancestors settled in the factory towns of Great Lakes battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
But to suggest that Ryan is a working-class contender, or that he has ever tried to understand or support the interests of the 99 percent of Americans who don’t live in the mansions of departed industrialists (as he does), would be like describing Mitt Romney as the son of an autoworker. Indeed, Romney’s vice-presidential pick has imbibed the frothy mix of Wall Street–dictated crony capitalism, social conservative absolutism and cold war militarism that defines elite modern conservatism.
It is often said that Reagan’s ideological deviations would prevent him from winning a contemporary GOP primary. If that’s so, he would lose to the likes of Ryan, who is dramatically more committed than Reagan ever was to the supply-side lie, to authoritarian assaults on civil liberties and a woman’s right to choose, and to an embrace of militarism over diplomacy. Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” would impose outrageous sacrifices on food stamp recipients and students seeking Pell Grants, while preserving an obscenely bloated Pentagon and eliminating even more taxes for billionaires. Ryan’s never been about “fiscal responsibility”; even by his own ridiculously optimistic estimates, his plan wouldn’t balance the budget for more than a decade. Instead, this is an old-school redistribution of wealth… upward.
Ryan is a class warrior, and he is nothing if not the champion of his class. A son of privilege, Ryan was raised in the warm embrace of wealth, and his family’s political connections earned him a ticket to Washington straight out of college. Hailed as an “intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” Ryan is much better understood as Dick Cheney with good hair. Neither an economist nor a philosopher, the Wisconsin Congressman is a former “Hill rat,” a kid who took jobs in and around the Capitol before getting elected to Congress from a district that has been repeatedly redrawn to preserve the easy path of the GOP’s “golden boy.”
Ryan acknowledges that his “big ideas”—and even his inspiration to go into politics—came from that favored thinker of self-absorbed teens, Ayn Rand, along with the Austrian economists favored by Ron Paul. But Cheney’s a far better reference point; like the former vice president, the newly minted veep contender is a GOP insider with a plan to remake the country along lines favored by the bankers, speculators and insurance-industry CEOs who have made Ryan’s Congressional campaign account among the richest of House members. Cheney, who says he “worships the ground Paul Ryan walks on,” chose the Pentagon as his playground; Ryan’s focus is entitlement programs. Just as Cheney used his office to privatize the military, opening the spigots for contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater, Ryan has used his position as House Budget Committee chair to propose a radical restructuring of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid so that tax dollars and the savings of seniors will flow into the accounts of Wall Street speculators and the for-profit insurance industry.
Ryan is the shiny new toy of the moment. But there is nothing distinctive about him. He has never really taken a tough vote opposing the demands of his corporate benefactors. This “fiscal hawk” rallied conservative support for the bank and auto industry bailouts despised by the Tea Party right. And he rejected the pleas of his own constituents in blue-collar Janesville to oppose the trade and economic policies that threatened the local GM and Parker Pen plants. Both closed during Ryan’s House tenure, eliminating thousands of jobs. Those changes shook the town, but not so much Ryan: with a personal fortune inflated substantially during his Congressional tenure—now estimated at as much as $7.8 million—he bought the most desirable house on the most desirable street in town. In the midst of the recession, he established himself on the estate of Parker Pen’s former CEO. The pen plant and its jobs are gone, but Ryan is sitting pretty in the mansion on the hill—a perfect metaphor for the circumstances that would prevail in a Romney-Ryan America.