Team Rebel, Wise Simpleton, Paul Ryan

In the current state of interplay between the institutional Republican Party and the movement-conservative marketplace, there turns out to be a highly specialized role that must be filled: the Team Rebel/Wise Simpleton of the House. That is Paul Ryan, who took over from Mike Pence of Indiana after the 2010 election.

This position is required, because the conservative base demands that Republicans act as though they are trying to do the things they promised to do -- balance the budget, dramatically reduce the size of government, rein in entitlement spending, and so on. These things are both politically unfeasible and mathematically impossible, but that is not what consumers of the movement-conservative marketplace believe, and if their elected Republicans don't agree then there are others who will happily replace them in the next primary.

So, someone has to be in charge of making those Rush-listeners happy by putting together and championing a "budget plan." This is different from a "budget," which would include things like how much to spend on the various government functions. A budget plan is more like a children's book in which a child magically travels from his or her bedroom to a fantasy land of Oz or Nod or Never Land or the Land of the Wild Things; you're meant to enjoy the destination, and not think much about the magic that brought you there.

The congressman in charge of this budget plan must be a champion of the movement-conservative base (much as the bedtime story reader must be popular with children). That requires not only conservatism but also a certain outsider, truth-to-power, gate-crasher persona. That's because the movement-conservative marketplace is highly skeptical of the entrenched powers that be in Washington, including the Republicans who, after all, ran up the deficits in the 2000s and crashed the economy and implemented the TARP plan which triggered the Tea Party movement.

Of course, an actual outsider doesn't rise to become the Congressional Republican caucus's budget chief -- Boehner et al aren't going to trust anything but a proven team player with that. So you end up with the oddity of people like Pence and Ryan, consummate brown-nosing, ambition-fueled, vote-with-the-leader, GOP insiders, who are also accepted by the conservative base as diehard ideologues determined to shake things up in Washington by telling the hard truths.

They also must present themselves as the brainy one, who you can believe and trust with all those fancy numbers -- but also must present themselves as simple people without fancy learnin', because if there's one thing the movement-conservative marketplace knows, it's that all the answers stem from common sense.

Ryan has done a nice job balancing both of these contradictions, as Pence did before him (before deciding to run for governor). It's kind of amazing that the conservative base loves him so much, when you consider that he has no experience of any kind in the private sector, spent his entire congressional career voting with leadership for things the base now despises, has never run anything bigger than his congressional office, has backed off of any proposal found to be too controversial for the party, and of course has no history of effectively doing anything -- passing a bill, for example -- to advance the cause of conservative governance.

But he tells them exactly what they want to hear, and comes across with a combination of intellect, self-confidence, and "gee whiz it's really very simple." And that's apparently enough.

It initially occurred to me that Ryan, with his cookie-cutter budget bromides, represents the final endpoint of Mitt Romney's capitulation from the man he once was -- the non-ideological, data-driven, open-the-hood-and-take-a-look manager -- to the political fantasist trying to fast-talk his way into the White House today.

But to be fair, the Ryan pick is simply a calculated choice, certainly no more cynical than picking Kerry Healey 10 years ago.

And while I generally agree with the conventional analysis that Ryan is a fairly bold and risky selection -- riskier than I anticipated -- I would temper that by noting that he didn't really have a whole lot of choice.

There are, pretty much, just two types of Republicans left. There are those who espouse the full slate of hard-line ideological positions acceptable to the movement-conservative marketplace; and there are those who have actually had to do something in government, which requires compromise and reality-based thinking. That second group (which of course includes Romney himself) are a tough sell to the conservative base. The first group are a tough sell to the independent swing voters.

So, I thought Romney would lean a little toward the second choice, with Rob Portman -- but the truth is there weren't a lot of good choices out there (and we don't really know who was willing, and whose vetting revealed risks). Ryan might actually have been the least risky choice, of what Romney had to work with. 


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