Did Obama mastermind the rise of Paul Ryan?

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has an interesting, if somewhat delusional, take on the rise of Paul Ryan. According to Klein, Ryan’s rise was orchestrated by President Obama. In Klein’s telling, Ryan was just an obscure committee chairman with a plan Republican insiders had no interest in, until Obama starting gushing about how serious Ryan was. Even then, Ryan’s profile wasn’t rising quickly enough. So in April 2011, Obama singled out the Ryan budget for abuse. This caused the media to pay more attention to Ryan, and the Republicans to rally around him. The rest is history.

According to Klein, the White House wanted to elevate Ryan so Obama could run against his conservative and draconian (as it would be portrayed) budget. But, says Klein, this has turned into a high-risk, high-reward strategy. If Romney loses, his defeat may strengthen moderate Republicans and provide Obama with a more “cooperative” opposition in his second term. But if Romney wins, he will have done so as a conservative, not a moderate, and can claim a mandate to enact “a deeply conservative agenda.”

Klein’s view of Ryan’s rise is strikes me as partly valid and partly Democratic narcissism. Klein is right that Obama wanted to elevate Ryan. Having failed to make Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, etc. the face of the Republican Party, here, finally, was a plausible (albeit attractive) foil.

But the notion that Republicans took their cue on Ryan from Obama is fanciful, and Klein presents no evidence to support. Nor does he present any analysis in defense of the odd notion that Republicans lack a mind of their own to the point that their preferences are merely a reaction, egged on by the media, to Obama.

Ryan’s rise within the Republican Party is, above all, attributable to the fact that he mastered the key issue that now is most important to Republicans — the federal budget. Ryan received help, of course, but that help came from Republicans. And they provided it not in response to Obama, but because Ryan was an ideal vehicle for two key Republican constituencies — the Tea Party and, what I call with affection, the wonk faction.

The wonk faction consists of ideologically conservative Republicans whose primary concern is policy, not pure politics. Some of the most distinguished of these wonks, for example Yuval Levin, had policy-advising roles in the Bush administration.

As Klein notes, Republicans who wanted to take time off from real policy after November 2008 and focus on just saying “no” to the president were ascendant for a while. And in a sense, their approach worked fine in the 2010 election. But the “no” delivered to the Democrats by the voters that year was more than a mere negation. The Tea Party filled the ideological void left by the traditional politicos. In doing so, they, not Obama, paved the way for Paul Ryan.

Once Republicans controlled the House, Ryan and the wonks could argue that just saying “no” wasn’t enough. With power, they said, comes responsibility.

In reality, the Republicans possessed little power. A Ryan budget could not become law. Thus, having little power, the Republicans had little responsibility, and arguably no responsibility to push for a potentially unpopular budget that couldn’t become law. But that’s not how Ryan viewed the matter.

As importantly, that’s not how the Tea Party movement and the conservative wonks wanted to view it. The combination of (1) an energized and demanding base and (2) heavyweight idea men who did not wish to defer intense policy discussions turned the tide within the Republican Party.

Mitt Romney did not resist that tide. Could he have? Probably not, if he wanted the nomination. Romney was simply carrying too much moderate baggage, most notably Romneycare, to get on the bad side of what we might call the Ryan faction. Indeed, Romney was more than just a bystander when Newt Gingrich paid the price for suggesting that Ryan was a right-wing social engineer.

Would Romney have liked to resist the Ryan tide? Perhaps, but I’m inclined to think not. At root, I believe Romney is a (1) a genuine fiscal conservative and (2) a problem solver, something of a wonk in his own right. Thus, there is no true disconnect between Romney and the Ryan/wonk/Tea Party side of the Party, except for Romney’s natural caution. But something — polling, conservative pundits, including the Wall Street Journal editorial page, or whatever — may have convinced Romney that caution wouldn’t carry the day. Alternatively, Romney may believe that Obama is so fundamentally weak that he need not be ultra-cautious.

In any event, Romney, like his Party, has doubled-down on Ryan. Team Obama, whether justifiably or not, apparently is delighted. But Obama cannot take the credit (or the blame) for making it happen.


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