DES MOINES — Paul Ryan’s ideas reached their sell-by date in 2011, as tens of millions of Americans recognized that his proposals would permanently damage and ultimate destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But as the year came to a close and his rancid schemes were starting to putrefy, Ryan suddenly found a new buyer: Mitt Romney.

The Republican presidential contender is so desperate to sell himself as the “conservative leader” he never was that Romney’s “closing argument” appeal to Iowa caucus goers features quotes from columnist Ann Coulter.

Those Romney radio ads, which are more ubiquitous in Iowa than Geico gecko insurance commercials, tout the former governor of Massachusetts as a “conservative businessman” with a “conservative plan.” They compare him with Ronald Reagan. They feature Coulter quotes.

But the centerpiece of Romney’s advertising in Iowa (and New Hampshire) is an attempt to associate the candidate’s economic agenda with House Budget Committee chairman Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future.”

Never mind that Ryan has scrupulously avoided endorsing Romney, or any other GOP contender. Never mind that there are still some Republican insiders who would like to see Ryan enter the presidential contest.

Romney’s claiming Ryan stamp of approval.

“Congressman Paul Ryan praised Romney’s plan, saying: ‘This is getting us toward a prosperity agenda that will allow the private-sector to grow,’ ” declares the the Romney pitch to Iowans.

That’s no casual reference to Ryan.

Romney, who once resisted endorsing Ryan’s plan, has for several weeks now been using the Wisconsin congressman as a lifesaver to prevent his campaign from been swept away by a conservative wave.

One of the first salvos in Romney’s attack on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was a television ad that attacked Gingrich for briefly rejecting Ryan’s plan as “right-wing social engineering.”

The ad closes with Ryan discussing Gingrich’s criticism, telling right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham: “With allies like that, who needs the left?”

“As political attack ads go, [Romney’s] ‘With Friends Like Newt’ ad is about as nasty as it gets on the Republican side,” observes the Mediaite website. “To the outsider, it might not seem that way (normal people hated Ryan’s budget, too), but the level of worship heaped on the Ryan budget by conservatives has that plan replacing the gift of frankincense in holiday manger scenes across the country. Romney’s campaign pounds Gingrich for the full minute on his comments about the Ryan plan, complete with sinister music and grainy monochrome visuals. By the end, you fully expect Gingrich’s eyes to begin to glow Demon-sheep red.”

Romney’s Ryan reverence may score him points with Republican caucus-goers in Iowa. And if it does, that’s a reminder that Ryan’s hustle is still working in at least some quarters. And make no mistake, Paul Ryan is a hustler. The Republican congressman from Wisconsin has gotten very good at fooling political and media elites into thinking that his schemes to steer federal money into the accounts of Wall Street speculators (by taking steps to privatize Social Security) and for-profit insurance companies (by turning Medicare and Medicaid into voucher programs) would balance budgets or in some other way improve the circumstances of working families.

But even if Ryan referencing gets Romney through the Iowa thicket, tying his star to the Budget Committee chairman won’t help Romney with the great mass of Americans.

In fact, to the extent that Ryan’s machinations were exposed by responsible media in 2011, they were rejected by the voters.

Among the worst setbacks suffered by Ryan’s Republicans last year was the defeat of the party’s nominee in a spring election for a historically Republican seat representing upstate New York. Democrat Kathy Hochul won by ignoring her GOP opponent and running against Ryan’s plan to enrich Wall Street at the expense of the elderly.

The bad news from Buffalo scared Ryan. And rightly so.

If the congressman’s determination to raid the federal treasury in order to enrich his campaign donors becomes more well known in 2012, it will be more widely rejected.

Even Ryan, who has been easily re-elected in every election since 2000, could be vulnerable—indeed, new polling suggests his approval ratings are trending downward in his southeastern Wisconsin district, where the Budget Committee chairman has been confronted by angry crowds at town hall meetings.

That’s a big problem for Ryan. And it explains why he has begun hustling to get the sort of favorable publicity that would allow him to remain a darling of the DC establishment and one of the most successful fundraisers on Capitol Hill.

Ryan is not stupid. He has to recognize that his plans are fundamentally flawed—that they would cost taxpayers more money while providing less security and care for the nation’s elderly, disabled and orphaned. But he also knows that he will continue to be a favorite candidate of hedge-fund managers, banksters and CEOs if he keeps pushing privatization and voucherization schemes.

Thus, approving media reports and profiles have become essential to his political and personal success.

So it was that Ryan used his political action committee to launch a campaign this month to game a PolitiFact poll regarding the “lie of the year.” Ryan and his political team understood that a campaign to “ensure the Democrats’ lies about the Path to Prosperity are exposed” would create pressure on media types to suggest his budget proposals had been unfairly maligned. Even by the low standards that apply to Ryan, that was a pretty pathetic move. He got his PolitiFact headline but it was not based on a serious contention with criticisms of his plan; rather, he scored on the technicality that some critics said he wanted to “kill” Social Security, Medicare and Medicare, when in fact he wants to keep them alive as vehicles to funnel money into the accounts of his Wall Street donors and insurance-industry paymasters.

Ryan will continue campaigning. He knows that he needs all the good publicity he can get. And he did score at year’s end, earning a glowing report from the gullible team at Time. The report on Ryan, which came complete with a photo of the congressman struggling with a bow and arrow, described him in glowing terms.

Headlined “The Prophet,” the Time article repurposed Ryan—a career politician who has spent his adult lifetime in Washington—as a courageous battler against political orthodoxy. Hailing the congressman as “the most influential America politician,” the fawning report imagined that “through a combination of hard work, good timing and possibly suicidal guts, the Wisconsin Republican managed to harness his party to a dramatic plan for dealing with America’s rapidly rising public debt.”

Never mind that Ryan’s plan has no chance of being adopted—even by a President Mitt Romney, who distinguished himself in 2011 by pointedly rejecting Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Social Security–bashing. According to Time, Ryan “brought an ugly issue out of the foggy realm of think tanks and blue-ribbon panels and dropped it into the middle of the national debate in time to define the next presidential election.”

Time’s editors missed the irony of placing a piece praising Ryan just a few pages away from the cover story that hailed “The Protester” as the magazine’s “Person of the Year.” While the piece on the global wave of protests against bad politics and bad economics was vapid in the extreme, it at least acknowledged that a primary focus of anger in the United States is the austerity lie—and the inequality it promotes.

The fact is that millions of Americans are actively protesting against the political corruption that floods corporate cash into the campaign accounts of pliable congressmen like Paul Ryan. The American people are furious with the pay-to-play politics that has tipped the balance in Washington away from the best interests of people in communities such as Janesville and toward the special interests on Wall Street.

Paul Ryan embodies this corruption of America’s promise. He may still be able to fool the editors at Time. He may still be able to scam a headline out of the PolitiFact folks. And he may still be Mitt Romney’s political “lifeline.” But he is not fooling the American people. And Romney and other Republicans who are hawking Ryan’s plan as a panacea will be reminded of that fact once the caucuses are done and the real 2012 campaign begins.