Paul Ryan's looks are often compared to an actor's, and that's no accident: He's being groomed for the role of a lifetime. When Mitt Romney accidentally introduced Ryan as "the next President" he may have been displaying the same predilection for accidental honesty -- for truth-telling as political gaffe -- that he showed when he praised Israel's socialized health system.
And Romney may be right. The most likeable and electable extremist in the country just became the GOP's 2016 front-runner. That's no accident either.
All the signs suggest that the economy will struggle for years unless progressive steps are taken. Worse, another steep decline into recession or depression could occur at any time. If Obama's re-elected and we're still suffering in 2016, as now seems likely, our "electable extremist" will be in the perfect position to become the next President.
Heads we win, says Corporate America, and tails you lose.
The Long Game
Even that doesn't tell the whole story. The Ryan choice reflects something much bigger than an election or two. Corporate America and those who serve it have been playing a Long Game for political power, displaying formidable qualities yet to be seen in its electoral opponents: a clearly-articulated vision, concrete goals, and the ability to plan and execute long-range strategies.
Under their ideal of Corporate Statism, the President is no longer "the Decider." He or she increasingly serves as Corporate America's employee, a hireling who serves as its sales rep, its celebrity spokesperson, as a flesh-and-blood avatar for faceless financial power.
Who's better suited for that job than Paul Ryan?
The game plan was laid out in the infamous Lewis Powell memo of 1970, which encouraged corporations to take control of all major US institutions. And their game was already well underway when Powell sketched his strategy on the chalkboard.
Far from being a blunder, the Ryan nomination can be seen as the next step in a decades-long plan to capture this country's political institutions for the ideology of radical corporate statism. The left would be wise to stop celebrating it and start coming up with a Long Game of its own.
We Don't Do Windows
The Corporate Right's leadership may have already concluded that this year's Presidential election is likely unwinnable. Ryan then becomes the perfect choice for VP: With one move, the nation's most genuinely radical national politician became the leading contender for the 2016 nomination. Ryan will turn out the GOP base and give it a lift in down-ticket races. And most importantly, a far-right radical has been given four months to preach an extreme vision of America on a national platform.
And let's not forget: If the unexpected happens and the GOP ticket wins, this radical will also be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.
If Uriah Heep were the leading man on a daytime soap opera, he'd be Paul Ryan. Ryan's half-suave, half-goofy style puts an avuncular smiley-face on the corporatists' brutal ideology. He'll move the "Overton window" of political acceptability even further to the Right every time he appears on television. And he'll appear on television a lot. Let's face it, liberals: The camera loves those eyes.
Until this weekend, nobody in the Presidential race was articulating a clear political vision. But Paul Ryan will.
Ryan's is an extreme Randian vision of the economic landscape as painted by Hieronymus Bosch, where corporate colossuses strive above a ragged population struggling to survive in their shadows. Why is this ideology frightening, if it's so unpopular and dystopic? To paraphrase John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: Say what you like about the tenets of corporate statism, Dude, but at least it's an ethos.
The Corporate State
The phrase "corporate statism" describe the GOP's new ideology far better than "conservatism" does. The corporate statists don't share traditional conservatism's abhorrence of fiscal deficits, for example, despite all their rhetoric to the contrary.
In fact, the Ryan budget would actually increase the deficit from its current $10 trillion to $22 trillion over a ten-year period, so that by 2022 the nation would be paying more in interest payments than it would in Medicare payments. That's much higher than the deficits projected under President Obama's plan, which leads to reduced indebtedness over time.
The only genuine conservative in this year's race, at least where government deficits are concerned, is Barack Obama.
The Rand/Ryan/Romney ideology is "corporate statist" because it places the institutions of government at the disposal of, and in the service of, a few dozen mega-corporations. We saw the corporate-statist agenda in action when Rep. Spencer Bachus, in another "truth as gaffe" moment, told Wall Street executives that "Washington exists to serve the banks."
We've also seen the corporate-statist agenda in massive government giveaways to corporations through bank bailouts. We've seen it in the movement to privatize government functions, a policy failure that has helped some executives get very, very rich. We've seen it in the push to "private Social Security accounts." And we''re seeing it in the soaring expenditures for military purchasing in the supposedly "cost-cutting" Ryan/Romney GOP budget.
Who will promote that radical agenda this year? Paul Ryan will.
The Great Plundering
- Deep cuts in government services for lower-income people;
- Deep cuts in some social insurance programs (Social Security) and the outright elimination of others (Medicare) for the middle class;
- An immediate tax increase for 95 percent of Americans; and,
- Even more drastic longer-term tax increases for most Americans through the elimination of "tax expenditures" - that is, deductions for home mortgage interest, employer health coverage, and child care.
The corporate-statist movement has a vision, all right. It's the vision of a nation where most people live in financial uncertainty and deprivation, a harsh environment which accomplishes two goals for corporatists: It adds to the pool of low-cost employees who will tolerate degrading working conditions, and it ensures that the public will be too frightened to mount any real resistance to corporate abuse.
Why do you think more underwater homeowners haven't walked away from their mortgages? They know that low credit scores would deprive them of the ability to borrow, which they may desperately need to make ends meet, and that it could even render them unemployable. That's just a small taste of what life wil be like under Corporate Statism. If people are too frightened to refuse to pay usurious interest on deceptively obtained loans, they'll certainly be too frightened to Occupy the Corporate State.
And that's the plan.
Yes, the Corporate Right has a vision. It's the vision of a classically oligarchical nation controlled by a tiny and extremely wealthy ruling class. It's a vision of deregulated corporations who have the unrestrained freedom to endanger lives, jeopardize the global economy, and despoil the environment. It's a vision of unfettered corporate control over our politics, our media, and even our private lives.
Say what you will about these tenets, dudes and dudettes, but at least it's an ethos.
Is there a counter-ethos?
Not so far. It was encouraging to hear our centrist-leaning President accurately characterize Ryan's approach as "social Darwinism," but his message and his deeds continue to blend old-school conservatism with rhetorical populism. Even erstwhile liberal firebrand Nancy Pelosi says she'd vote for the right-leaning, anti-government Simpson-Bowles plan in a heartbeat.
The Democrats will be tempted to use Ryan as an excuse to stick to their destructive (and self-destructive) strategy of articulating a DC-centric version of "centrism" that's far to the right of American public opinion. That would weaken turnout and enthusiasm among their base, without impressing very many undecideds.
Democrats aren't going to win against an anti-Social Security, anti-Medicare agenda with nuanced arguments about cutting them a little less, or a little differently, than their opponents would. Sure, Obama may eke out a Presidential victory, but the Democratic message will have received another damaging blow. And the Corporate Right's message will have validated by a wave of dithering, hair-splitting, "we're the real Simpson-Bowles'" deficit reduction rhetoric from the Dems.
A coherent story is usually much more persuasive than an incoherent story one - even if it happens to be insane.
That's never more true than in hard times like these. As many as 24 million voters live in homes with "underwater" mortgages. Fifteen million of them are un- or under-employed. Most of them are feeling the agony of long-term wage stagnation, cuts to vital government services, and an economy that's in permanent recession.
If they only hear one clear story to explain what's going on, a clear story is the story they'll remember. Who'll tell a clear story this year? One thing's for sure: Paul Ryan will.
Randian social theory, like conservative economic theory, has been conclusively disproved by events. What's more, polls show that most Americans support government's role in their daily lives -- in Medicare and Social Security, in police and firefighting efforts, in education, and in the construction and maintenance of our national infrastructure.
But if the Democrats don't articulate a clear vision of their own, this campaign season will shift public consciousness further to the right. The idea of a nation "of the people, by the people, and for the people" will recede even further into the dim recesses of public memory. "President Ryan" -- or another smiling cipher -- will be that much closer to attaining power on behalf of his or her sponsors. And Corporate America's frightening plan to own our future and everyone in it will be that much closer to becoming reality.
To anyone with a basic grasp of policy and numbers, Paul Ryan's charts and graphs are empty and meaningless. He's a salesman, not a leader. He "didn't build that" -- but he can sell it. He can't write the story, but he can tell it. And, however crazy it may sound to some of us, the Corporate Right does have a story to tell.
If the Democrats don't, do it, then somebody who opposes the Corporate Right needs to articulate a vision for the future -- and then fight for that vision with everything they've got. Because one thing's for certain:
Paul Ryan will.