Short Cuts

David Bromwich

On 11 August, Mitt Romney stirred excitement in a dull election by announcing that he would share the Republican ticket with Paul Ryan: a seven-term congressman, chairman of the House Budget Committee and intellectual guru of the congressional Tea Party. The choice was not altogether surprising. The moderate lawmakers whom Romney might have picked were without popular appeal, and it must have seemed possible that Ryan’s extreme proposals for federal budget-cutting and lowering taxes on the rich could be presented as evidence of a manly concern with principle which any impartial spectator ought to admire.

News presenters, keen on human interest, point out again and again that Ryan’s father died suddenly when he was 16. He learned independence the hard way, the story seems to say. In fact, Ryan grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, close to grandparents and aunts and uncles who constituted an aristocracy in the town. The Ryans were numerous and they were rich. In time of trouble, Paul could always fall back on the network of a family that lived in concentric circles around him. His proposals to reduce the social ‘safety net’ for the unlucky may be seen as drawing a convenient but contortedly wrong lesson from his own life.

Ryan learned his anti-government ideology from an intoxicated early exposure to the writings of Ayn Rand.[*] It is now clear that Rand has been the most influential thinker in American politics of the last fifty years. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged promote, as Rand put it, a ‘morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness’. The central tenets of her politics, hatred of anything that could be construed as self-sacrifice and cruelty towards the helpless, are the exact inverse of the worship of collective sacrifice and blind solidarity that she detested in communism. For a lonely but well-fed achiever in Janesville, this doctrine was a gift – just as it had been once for Alan Greenspan, a young cultist before he became chairman of the Federal Reserve and presided over the bubble and collapse of the Clinton and Bush years.

What signal did Romney send by choosing Ryan? He is on the ticket to make sure that Romney will let Wall Street write its own rules. Free the dollar men, and free them not abashedly but proudly. The odd thing about the choice is that Ryan, though he is running for vice-president, was immediately taken to be the counter-Obama. At 42, he is young, as Obama was young in 2008. He, too, is an ‘idealist’. What the country has vaguely now been promised is an honourable contest of ideals. Yet it was natural for people to compare Ryan with Obama on other grounds. Both are handsome, athletic, comfortable with their early success, and irritating in no obvious way. Somewhere beneath the Obama presentation was always the message: ‘No one (ultimately) can resist my serious charm, and all problems (eventually) find solutions by listening to my voice.’ Ryan’s appeal is just as in-the-groove, but it takes the delivery to the edge of aggression: ‘I am clever and quick, I never lose my temper, and people can only pretend I didn’t win the argument if they ignore my facts and numbers.’

Where Obama projected the calm consciousness of a grave but unnamed mission, Ryan’s self-love is more recognisably American-boyish. He radiates ambition, healthy ambition, as if ambition were one of those permitted substances you could take at the gym to enhance performance. He has a lean and hungry look even when he smiles; and a relentless eagerness also, which will wear on people over time. His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection. Listening to other people is a formality, for Ryan, to be endured before he springs his answers. And how the answers pour out! There is an attractive, efficient speed in the way he works, but also a kind of deadness. And the deadness is there in his eyes – the hard eyes of the self-fulfilled and self-justified, clean of mind and clean of body, a whole mental mansion trip-wired against invasion by entities seeking pity and bearing excuses.

Ryan’s allies at Fox News celebrated his entry into the campaign by raising a factual challenge after the manner of Ryan the budget master. Obama’s Affordable Health Care, they said, will divert $750 billion from Medicare into the new programme to cover costs for some of the newly insured, while those who paid money into Medicare will keep their coverage under the new plan. This is said to be a scandal, and why? The new people are getting something for nothing and meanwhile the Medicare retirees will end up having helped other people without their express permission. If you believe that society is a partnership, in which each person surrenders perfect autonomy in order to obtain the benefits of living among others, then the offense is hard to find: there is no scandal in some paying for others. Yet Ryan has laid it down that each man must water his own tree of dollars.

Many people are saying that the election is Obama’s to lose. He need only fight the old fight on New Deal ground and watch Romney-Ryan crash. After all, the Ryan plan to privatise Social Security fell flat in 2005 and brought low the second term of George W. Bush. A lot can still happen. A Middle East war is cooking, and among the cooks are Romney’s advisers and patrons and his personal friend Benjamin Netanyahu. But from this moment the pitch against the Republicans writes itself. Obama greeted the entry of Ryan by pronouncing him ‘a good man’ who has the ‘wrong vision for America’. This is pompous and beside the point. Call him, simply, the Tea Party Candidate. It is how he might describe himself, and is anyway a description he can never disown. Most voters, even among the baffled undecideds, know exactly what it means and have an unsentimental grasp of the changes a Tea Party government would bring.

[*] Jenny Turner wrote about Ayn Rand in the LRB of 1 December 2005.