The American songwriter and comedian Tom Lehrer once wrote that he didn’t “want to satirize George Bush,” but instead “to vaporize him.” Given Lehrer’s talent for satire, this represented something of a regression. Nonetheless, he was in good company, for, in the world of politics, “vaporization” is a popular choice.
The preference for annihilation over disapprobation has rarely been so luminously on display as during this week. Since Mitt Romney announced his nomination of Paul Ryan for the vice presidency, the House Budget Committee chairman has been metamorphosed into the devil, and a phalanx of those freshly diagnosed with Ryan Derangement Syndrome has been released into the unsuspecting public.
Chief among this merry band of hysterics is Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce. Pierce has led the charge against Ryan since Saturday morning’s disclosure, christening the congressman the “zombie-eyed granny-starver,” a “murderer of opportunity,” a “political coward,” and, sarcastically, one presumes, the “Pericles of Janesville.” As Pierce breathlessly explains, Ryan is not merely a man with a differing view of the role of the federal government and a good-faith, if controversial, plan to secure the future, but
an authentically dangerous zealot. He does not want to reform entitlements. He wants to eliminate them. He wants to eliminate them because he doesn’t believe they are a legitimate function of government. He is a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live. This now is an argument not over what kind of political commonwealth we will have, but rather whether or not we will have one at all, because Paul Ryan does not believe in the most primary institution of that commonwealth: our government.
As well there should be, there will be criticism as long as there is politics; and, certainly, one would not expect the Left to like Paul Ryan very much. For starters, Ryan has long had the gauche temerity to observe — in public, no less — that all is not rosy in America’s fiscal future. In doing so, he seems determined to play Senator Seneca to President Obama’s Nero, and it is for this, as much as anything else, that he has carved out his role as Enemy No. 1 of the progressive Left. Those who believe that entitlements run on good intentions will always hate men who come armed with spreadsheets, especially when those spreadsheets neatly explode the myth that all of America’s problems can be solved by increasing taxes on the rich. But Pierce’s hyperbole transcends mere disagreement, as does his dismissal of all those who dissent as “gobshites.” Instead, he seeks to remove Paul Ryan — and his ideas — from polite conversation.
Language such as this is not new, even if Pierce’s is saltier than usual. Descriptions of impending “dystopias” are trotted out every time that a long-term conservative plan is posited. Thanks to Joe Biden’s plagiarism, Neil Kinnock’s famous warning was played on both sides of the Atlantic:
If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain — when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance — when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty — when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay. I warn you that you will be cold — when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.
As a rule, delirious warnings such as these typically represent better literature than prognostication. In reality, the tough choices made by Mrs. Thatcher in England and the Reagan/Bush administrations in the United States did not create an “economy that can’t pay,” but one that did. As a result of the tough love of conservatives in the 1980s, the very social programs that Kinnock and Biden warned were threatened with extinction were provided with the revenues on which they rely — for a time, at least. On the left, this is the truth that dare not speak its name.
For good measure, Pierce has also exploited Ryan’s lack of foreign-policy experience, deftly linking Paul Ryan to Ronald Reagan, Elliott Abrams, and other “zombie-eyed nun-killers” — all of whom, he claims, “winked at the rape and murder of American churchwomen in Central America.” Maybe, Pierce suggests,
during a break at his next foreign-policy briefing, Paul Ryan, devout Catholic, can ask his primary foreign-policy mentor whether the guy’s feelings about gunning down archbishops in the middle of mass have evolved over the years.
The not-so-subtle implication: Ryan’s Catholicism is dangerous.
Not to be outdone on the religion front, in Time, Erika Christakis spent her two cents knocking Ryan’s piety. “Jesus’ teachings regarding wealth are nowhere to be found in Ryan’s budget proposal,” she averred. Why? Because,
as near as we can tell, Jesus would advocate a tax rate somewhere between 50% (in the vein of “If you have two coats, give one to the man who has none”) and 100% (if you want to get into heaven, be poor). Mostly, he suggested giving all your money up for the benefit of others. And Jesus made no distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor; his love and generosity applied to all.
Aha! Paul Ryan believes in low taxes; ergo, Paul Ryan is not a good Christian. Theology is a complex matter, and complex matters are subject to much legitimate debate. What tax rate Jesus would have advocated eludes minds greater than Christakis’s. But it is somewhat remarkable that at no point in her piece does she cite anything Jesus said about government to back up her argument. Many Christians — Paul Ryan included — would presumably argue that they are not permitted to subcontract their personal obligations to their fellow man to the government, let alone force others to uphold such obligations. Many non-religious people would agree with this conception of virtue, too. But this is an irrelevance. The purpose of Christakis’s column is to provide a vehicle that allows her to reach her conclusion, that the Ryan plan is “not noblesse oblige,” but “cruelty.”
Over at Salon, Joan Walsh spent 1,000 words contriving an argument that, amazingly enough, concurs with her upcoming book, What’s the Matter with White People — Paul Ryan is white and hates “the other”! — and simultaneously slams Ryan for “fakery”:
The man who wants to make the world safe for swashbuckling, risk-taking capitalists hasn’t spent a day at economic risk in his entire life.
Walsh goes on to allege that Ryan is the “pampered scion of a construction empire.” To anyone familiar with Ryan’s biography, this is absurd enough on its face, but, arguendo, let’s pretend that it’s true for a moment and also take into account the corresponding complaint that Ryan has spent his entire adult life in government. Does this automatically render him incorrect on federal budgeting matters, as Walsh implies? Milton Friedman used to ask members of his audiences who accused him of never having been poor whether there was anyone among them “who is going to say that you don’t want a doctor to treat you for cancer unless he himself has had cancer”? Walsh’s cheap tu quoque deserves to be dismissed to the sound of the laughter that used to greet Friedman’s rejoinder.
In fact, her whole piece does. To get an impression of how deep the derangement against Paul Ryan runs, consider that the first grievance Walsh includes is that as a young man Ryan chose to go “to Miami University of Ohio, paying twice as much tuition as an Ohio resident would have,” the problem apparently being that “the in-state University of Wisconsin system (which I attended) apparently wasn’t good enough for Ryan.” In-state tuition wasn’t good enough for President Obama either, and in-country tuition didn’t satisfy Bill Clinton, but neither of those appear to vex Walsh. Why?
Paul Ryan? Really? It’s a stunning choice. A terrible one too. By making it, Mitt Romney tells America that he is not his own man and hasn’t even the remotest fleeting desire to be his own man. He is owned by the right wing. Did I write a couple of weeks ago that Romney was insecure? Well — Q.E.D.
That’s convenient, then.
If we remain on this course, the wheelchair will reach the cliff without any need for Paul Ryan’s involvement. Sure, Ryan’s plan is not the only way of dealing with the looming crisis. But, as Timothy Geithner admitted, the administration does not have one at all. “What we do know,” he told Ryan in February, “is we don’t like yours.” With this statement, Geithner confirmed what many had long suspected: The administration is terrified of reality.
Paul Ryan has volunteered himself as the face of that reality, and he is going to suffer a bright spotlight as a result, especially having been pushed even further into national prominence. The Left has evidently concluded that if it can vaporize Paul Ryan, it can vaporize his ideas. Time will tell if they are correct, but, regardless, economic gravity — and not hyperbole — will have the last laugh.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.