What if Paul Ryan Isn’t Really a Wonk? Krugman vs. Campaign Reporters

If you know anything of substance about Paul Ryan, it’s that the Republican vice presidential pick knows his numbers.

A Washington Post profile today by Michael Leahy (8/20/12) tells us:

He got his start on Capitol Hill as a 19-year-old intern working in the mailroom of Sen. Bob Kasten (R-Wis.). That led in time to positions on congressional committees and habits he hasn’t broken since, including a staffer’s zeal for voracious research, for charts and PowerPoint presentations, and a facility for budget numbers that he recites with a savant’s glee.

As if that weren’t clear enough, we’re told later that he exhibits “a professorial absorption with fiscal issues.”

The New York Times has been saying the same. In a piece by Michael Barbaro (8/19/12) detailing how the GOP ticket mates got to know each other, readers learned:

But in Mr. Ryan, Mr. Romney saw shades of himself: a clean-cut numbers guy who favored the cold-eyed truths of actuarial tables over ideology for its own sake.

That article also described a Ryan/Romney meeting as “a pair of policy mavens out-geeking each other over esoterica.”

And another Times article by Annie Lowrey (8/18/12) got the scoop on Ryan’s depth from presumably knowledgeable sources:

The reputation for wonkiness is merited, people close to Mr. Ryan said. He goes home with a stack of white papers. He calls economists when he has questions about their budget projections or ideas.

Consider those assessments, and then read Paul Krugman‘s column today (8/20/12):  “Mr. Ryan’s true constituency is the commentariat,” he writes. “Ryanomics is and always has been a con game, although to be fair, it has become even more of a con since Mr. Ryan joined the ticket.”

Krugman goes on:

So if we add up Mr. Ryan’s specific proposals, we have $4.3 trillion in tax cuts, partially offset by around $1.7 trillion in spending cuts–with the tax cuts, surprise, disproportionately benefiting the top 1 percent, while the spending cuts would primarily come at the expense of low-income families. Over all, the effect would be to increase the deficit by around two-and-a-half trillion dollars.

Yet Mr. Ryan claims to be a deficit hawk. What’s the basis for that claim?

Well, he says that he would offset his tax cuts by “base broadening,” eliminating enough tax deductions to make up the lost revenue. Which deductions would he eliminate? He refuses to say–and realistically, revenue gain on the scale he claims would be virtually impossible.

At the same time, he asserts that he would make huge further cuts in spending. What would he cut? He refuses to say.

What Mr. Ryan actually offers, then, are specific proposals that would sharply increase the deficit, plus an assertion that he has secret tax and spending plans that he refuses to share with us, but which will turn his overall plan into deficit reduction.

If this sounds like a joke, that’s because it is.

Remember: Reporters are the ones who just give you the facts. People like Krugman have opinions.

This recalls one of my favorite Ryan-in-the-media moments, courtesy of New York‘s Jonathan Chait (4/29/12). Ryan was being profiled by ABC NewsJonathan Karl, and as Chait  reported, Ryan

awed a swooning reporter by opening up the budget to a random page and fingered a boondoggle. The item Ryan pointed to was the Obama administration’s reform of the student-loan industry. “Direct loans–this is perfect,” Ryan said. “So direct loans, that’s new spending on autopilot, that had no congressional oversight, and it gave the illusion that they were cutting spending.”

Except that that’s not what that was at all. The item in question was actually a money-saving reform of the student loan program. Instead of acting as a middleman for banks, the federal government would be dealing with loans directly. This was bad news for banks, which were making a tidy profit doing nothing much. As Chait put it:

The banks lobbied fiercely to protect their gravy train. Among the staunchest advocates of those government-subsidized banks was…Paul Ryan, who fought to protect bank subsidies that many of his fellow Republicans deemed too outrageous to defend. In 2009, Obama finally eliminated the guaranteed-lending racket. It could save the government an estimated $62 billion, according to the CBO.

Again: The ABC report that failed to expose Ryan’s non-wonkery followed the rules of neutral, just-the-facts journalism–at least, that’s how the rules are too often interpreted by corporate media.  It is precisely that journalistic approach that tells you, over and over, that Paul Ryan is a wonk.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.