How often will Paul Ryan refer to himself at the debate tonight as a wonk? Drinking-game wise, the words wonky, wonkish, a numbers guy, even a policy freak will also count. A half shot for each mention of Power Point and double shots if moderator Martha Raddatz or even Joe Biden refer to Ryan’s superior brain power in anything but skeptical tones.
Ryan is super-amazing smart. Take his word—namely the word wonk—for it: He knows budgets like nobody’s business, he bathes in details, he walks on statistics like hot coals. Republicans and the media love portraying him as wack on wonk (a Politico headline today: “Paul Ryan's wonk appeal”): it lets them off the hook of having to repeat, defend, or even understand the details, because the Grand Master Wonk has taken care of it.
Especially since Team Romney told him to shut up about details—on Medicare, abortion, budgets, taxes or how long it takes him to run marathons—Ryan has also let his numbers-oriented image stand in for actual numbers. Now, whenever Ryan evokes wonkery it operates as a trap door to escape the snake pit of specifics. His most notable evasion was from Fox News’s Chris Wallace, who repeatedly asked for the math behind the Romney/Ryan tax plan. “I don’t have the time,” Ryan said, “—it would take me too long to go through all of the math.” (Others have had the time to do the math.)
It’s been cute, but the jig is up. “Look, I know wonks. Ryan is not a wonk,” Paul Krugman writes. “Yes, he likes charts and slides. But he very clearly doesn’t know what his numbers actually mean.” Dave Weigel explains how the media is “[d]efining wonkishness down.” And it’s true: displaying charts are to Ryan the Wonk as clearing brush was to Bush the Cowboy. (W, if you’ll recall, was afraid of horses.)
One reason we’ve fallen for Ryan’s wonkery is, paradoxically, that he’s so good looking. If a very attractive man, or woman, is also brainiac, it can make you wish they’d just whip off their nerd glasses and let their hair hang down. It provides that cast-against-type frisson.
And in Ryan’s case, with all his heavily promoted body-building, the cerebral wonk suggests its opposite, the carnal hunk.
Maybe Ryan will surprise us all tonight with a raft of verifiable facts and specifics, much as Romney last week surprised us by coming out as Maximum Moderate Mitt. Otherwise, expect a mention or two or three of Ryan’s magnificent policy powers rather than a display of them.
So, did Ryan prove his wonkery last night? John Nichols says no.
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