Paul Ryan wants to be Speaker of the House but he wants a coronation, not a contested election. Toward that end, he's orchestrating a campaign that makes him appear to be a bridge-builder between the so-called "establishment" and "Tea Party" wings of the Republican Party -- the only guy who can save the GOP from self-destruction. But only in the whacky world of today's Republican Party could Ryan be seen as a voice of reason or even, according to the party's Tea Party wing -- as "too far left," as the New York Times recently reported.
As part of his campaign to appear to be an honest broker within the party, Ryan has carefully cultivated the image of being a serious "thinker" and "policy wonk" and, for the most part, the mainstream media have taken the bait. When Mitt Romney introduced Ryan as his running mate in 2012, he described the Wisconsin Congressman as the "intellectual leader of the Republican Party." In the conservative magazine Commentary, James Pethokoukis wrote that "It's probably safe to assume that no elected official in America understands the ins and outs of the labyrinthine U.S. budget the way Paul Ryan does." A McClatchey news story described Ryan as a "policy wonk" and a "conservative thinker." The Daily Beast called Ryan a "number-crunching policy wonk." New York Times columnist Ross Douthat described Ryan as a "moderate conservative."
But in any rational look at the spectrum of American political views, it is hard to imagine attaching the words "moderate" or "moderate conservative" to Ryan on any issue except perhaps his clothing preferences and his haircut.
Let's start with Ryan's outrageous hypocrisy. Ryan worships at the altar of novelist Ayn Rand, the philosopher of you're-on-your-own selfishness, whose books have been required reading for his Congressional staffers. Like Rand, he consistently demonizes people who improve their lives with the help of government. Ryan seems to be unaware of how much his own family and his own financial success has been influenced by "big government."
Despite Ryan's persistent attacks on government spending, his family's construction business has been anchored in building roads on government contracts. Despite his worship of private-sector entrepreneurs, he's spent his entire career as a government employee. Despite being a crusader against anti-poverty programs, Ryan is a millionaire who made his money the old-fashioned way: by marrying a woman who inherited a fortune.
In his speech to the GOP convention in Tampa in 2012, where he accepted Romney's invitation to join the GOP ticket as its vice presidential candidate, Ryan told a story about how, after his father's death, his mother "got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison." Ryan said:
She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. It wasn't just a new livelihood. It was a new life. And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn't just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my Mom is my role model.
Ryan meant this as a celebration of his mother's lift-herself-by-her-own-bootstraps spirit. Ryan didn't seem to realize that the bus was a public service, that the road was built and maintained by government, and that the University of Wisconsin in Madison is a public institution.
Yet Ryan has released budget plans that would slash funding for public education, roads, and public services that are the investments we need to lift people out of poverty and strengthen our economy.
For too long, reporters have been bamboozled by Ryan, who claims to be a both a budget expert and something of a social philosopher. But he's just a slick talker who appears to have flunked basic math in high school or college, because his budget numbers never add up.
During the 2012 campaign, when he was Romney's running mate, reporters kept asking Ryan to explain his draconian budget, but he could never provide a coherent answer. His stump speech was little more than warmed-over babble about the evils of "big government," the importance of being "self sufficient" and the dangers of people becoming dependent on government instead of lifting oneself up by one's bootstraps.
Ryan has made his reputation demonizing poor people. His most popular metaphor was the anti-poverty programs had failed because instead of being a safety net they'd become a "hammock," robbing people of their self-esteem and initiative.
Not surprisingly, he wants to slash programs that help low-income families and children. In 2013, from his perch on the House budget committee, he came out in favor of $20 billion in cuts that will throw an estimated two million children, elderly, and disabled Americans off food stamps. He pushed an amendment to eliminate food stamps for people who have $2,000 in savings, or a car worth more than $5,000. The CBO found that this would throw 1.8 million people off of the program. The Hill reported,
"Most of these would be low-income seniors and working families with children. These families typically live paycheck to paycheck. Denying them the ability to save for emergencies, such as fixing a car, or unexpected expenses, such as buying a uniform for a new job, only makes them more dependent on government resources, not less."
The mainstream media routinely give Ryan credit for being a serious budget guru and social policy expert. This could be seen last year when he released a 205-page report on the history of anti-poverty programs, going back a half century to President Johnson's Great Society programs, which concluded that they had failed. The report examined eight types of federal anti-poverty programs: food aid, social services, housing, cash aid, education and job training, energy, health care, and veterans affairs.
In the report, Ryan claimed that federal programs contributed to the nation's high poverty rate and created a "poverty trap." According to the report, "Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse." The report was filled with lies and misinformation, all meant to justify Ryan's proposed budget, which would slash anti-poverty programs like food stamps, family assistance, college aid, child care subsidies, and housing vouchers. Ryan, who also opposed extending unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless and raising the minimum wage, claimed that social science findings support his view that these programs have failed.
Ryan's report generated lots of attention in the mainstream media.
The Los Angeles Times headlined its story: "Paul Ryan calls for cuts to anti-poverty programs."
Bloomberg News' headline told readers: "Paul Ryan Sees $799 Billion War on Poverty Failing Poor."
The Washington Post headline echoed the same point: "Ryan Report Questions Efficacy Of Anti-Poverty Programs" (although it was retitled "House GOP budget will focus on reforming welfare, overhauling social programs" on the website). The article said that Ryan's report provided an "often stinging" evaluation of government anti-poverty efforts.
CNN's version was "Paul Ryan Wages War on the War on Poverty."
The National Journal headlined its article, "Ryan Says Some Poverty Programs are Hurting the Poor."
These headlines are both accurate and misleading at the same time. Ryan did say that anti-poverty programs hurt the poor. But neither the headlines nor these (and most other) news stories in the mainstream media managed to tell readers the most important fact about Ryan's report. He was wrong.
Few reporters bothered to contact any social science experts who might have explained that Ryan's report was full of holes. For all its footnotes, the report got it wrong, mostly by misquoting and misinterpreting studies that examine the impact of a wide variety of anti-poverty programs.
To cite just one example: Ryan's report cited a study published in December by Columbia University's Population Research Center measuring poverty trends since the War on Poverty began in the 1960s. Columbia Professor Jane Waldfogel and her colleagues looked at an alternative measure of the poverty rate known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which factors in government benefits like food stamps and programs like the earned-income tax credit. They found that the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012. But Ryan only cited data from 1969 onward, ignoring a full 36 percent of the decline.
"It's technically correct, but it's an odd way to cite the research," Waldfogel told Fiscal Times. "In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There's no justification given. It's unfortunate because it really understates the progress we've made in reducing poverty."
It wouldn't have been difficult for reporters to find out that Ryan's report was bogus. At the time, many policy experts were looking at the history and impact President Johnson's War on Poverty, which was announced 50 years earlier. There were many reports and commentaries by academics and think tanks examining the history and legacy of these anti-poverty programs.
The well-respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been evaluating anti-poverty programs for years and has plenty of experts ready to talk to the press. It released a report, "Ryan Report Distorts Safety Net's Picture," revealing that Ryan's report was "replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light. It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions."
Although mainstream media reporters were slow to expose Ryan's sham report, other media outlets were responsible and vigilant, interviewing policy experts (some of whom said that Ryan's report misquoted them), examining studies with real data, and identifying serious problems with the Ryan manifesto.
Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer: "Paul Ryan's Superficial Critique of Federal Poverty Programs."
New York magazine's Jonathan Chait: "Paul Ryan Tries to Enlist Social Science to Back Up His Poverty Plan, Disaster Ensues."
The Wire's Philip Bump: "Paul Ryan's Wonk Image Gets Fact-Checked."
The Fiscal Times' Rob Garver: "Economists Say Paul Ryan Misrepresented Their Research."
Slate's Jordan Weissmann: "It's a Trap! Paul Ryan's theory of poverty is tricksy--and wrong."
New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman weighed in with "The Real Poverty Trap." Rather than call the Wisconsin Congressman a liar, Krugman was a bit more gentle, pointing out that social science research "doesn't actually support the claims" in Ryan's report.
In fact, no major mainstream newspaper, magazine, or TV network news show exposed Ryan's report for the misleading hatchet job that it was. Hardly a "policy wonk," Ryan is simply a right-wing politician with strong convictions but few real facts to back them up.
As he seeks to become House Speaker, nothing that Ryan is saying differs significantly from what he's been espousing throughout his political career, but the lazy mainstream media keep giving him a free pass.
You can look on a variety of websites -- including On the Issues, the National Journal, Project Vote Smart, and The Political Guide -- to see Ryan's voting record and statements on issues.
On taxes, business regulation, abortion, gun control, gay rights, campaign finance, financial reform, anti-poverty programs, immigration, workers' rights, energy and the environment, deficit spending, privatizing Social Security, public transportation, unemployment insurance, health care, property rights, and other issues, Ryan is hardly a "moderate." He's not even a "moderate conservative." He's an extremist and a reactionary, allergic to compromise, in lockstep with the Tea Party, the NRA, and the conservative wing of the business establishment, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which views any government regulation to protect consumers, workers and the environment as a "job killer." Research documents that they are crying wolf, but the mainstream media allow them to repeat the mantra without much scrutiny.
These groups now dominate the GOP. But in earlier times, the GOP was a much larger tent, with room for a variety of viewpoints. For most of the 20th century, most of the conservative business class were Republicans (think Calvin Coolidge and Robert Taft), but there were also very progressive Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and Fiorello La Guardia who challenged the power of big business and promoted consumer and worker rights. (Until the 1960s, most of the racial reactionaries were Southern Democrats, but the GOP had its share of racists too.)
Up through the 1970s, there was still a species called "liberal Republican," in the mold of Senators Jacob Javits, Clifford Case, George Aiken, Prescott Bush, Mark Hatfield, and Charles Percy, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; and even Michigan Governor George Romney, Mitt's dad.
Today "liberal Republican" is an extinct species, as the party has moved further and further to the right. Political scientists Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University have charted this shift in terms of voting trends in Congress.
As a result, Republicans have moved further and further away from mainstream public opinion. The party's rightward trajectory is primarily the result of the combined influence of big business, the influence of well-organized right-wing funders (like the Koch Brothers), think tanks and foundations, the rise of the Tea Party, the ascendancy of right-wing media like Fox News and talk shows like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, and the gerrymandering of congressional districts to promote "safe" GOP seats where even conservative-but-not-wacko candidates, fearing primary challenges from the Tea Party (funded by the Kochs and their ilk), move ever further to the right.
Paul Ryan reflects these shifts within the Republican Party. The mainstream media has consistently failed to carefully scrutinize Ryan's views, as a fast-rising House member, as GOP vice presidential candidate, as budget committee chair, and now as likely House Speaker.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century and The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.