Matt Miller - The Archives

Paul Ryan's memoir preaches to the choir
The Washington Post, August 19, 2014

I signed a non-disclosure agreement to get an early copy of Rep. Paul Ryan's memoir-cum-manifesto, "The Way Forward," and there's explosive stuff that plainly had to be kept under wraps before Tuesday's launch. Are you sitting down? The Wisconsin Republican loves his home town of Janesville. He adores his wife, Janna. He thinks President Obama is leading the country in the wrong direction. And—spoiler alert—if Republicans can only recapture Ronald Reagan's sunny spirit and conservative ideals, American renewal is within reach.

Truth is, a book like this tells us less about what Ryan thinks than what Ryan thinks about his audience—and how that shapes his almost certain quest for higher office. What do we learn? He's speaking exclusively to Republicans. His caricatures of "liberal progressive" thinking (a double slur, in Ryan's usage) are so larded with straw men I stopped keeping count. His ideas about economics are either deeply confused or deeply disingenuous. Yet Ryan's homage to his mentor Jack Kemp and his growing engagement with poor Americans suggests more than just a felt need for "compassionate" cover in 2016. If Ryan can push his party to take upward mobility seriously—a big "if," because it would mean rethinking tenets of his own plans that make the worst off worse off—it could help redeem his otherwise regressive policy reflexes.

The most disturbing part of Ryan's analysis is his attempt to paint the meltdown of 2008 as the climax of a morality play involving runaway spending. Forget reckless, overleveraged banks, housing hijinks and a shadowy derivatives market run amok; Ryan, the champion of small government, is the proverbial man with an anti-spending hammer who sees nails everywhere. As the economy collapsed, Ryan the fiscal scold seemed less focused on the human toll of vast joblessness than on the prospect that budget deficits would suddenly soar. If Ryan had been king when the bottom fell out, he'd have been the second coming of Herbert Hoover—cutting spending and urging the Fed to sit on its hands in a "virtuous" purge that would have guaranteed another Depression.

Ryan's re-telling of the Obamacare wars is just as morally and economically blind. You'd think the Affordable Care Act was an attempt by "liberal progressives" to seize the commanding heights of the state for its own sake—rather than an adaptation of Mitt Romney's sensible approach to ending the shame of millions of uninsured who were subject to financial ruin from illness. Obamacare's roots in Romney's Massachusetts plan (and the Heritage Foundation's thinking) can never be underscored enough, no matter how hard Ryan and his ilk work to airbrush it from the picture.

But such bald revisionism (or honest confusion, take your pick) is just a warmup for Ryan's broader, fevered critique. Ryan asserts that Obama's policies "represent an ideological mission to reorder the human condition through state action," part of a liberal scheme in which "government defines success, strictly prescribes roles and outcomes, [and] tries to replace our civic institutions." The telling thing is that such rants, repeated like a tic throughout the book, never get specific. How could they, when Ryan would then have to explain how a modestly higher minimum wage or voluntarily adopted state math standards amount to some evil communist plot?

As I read I couldn't help wondering: Does anyone outside the echo chamber of the right believe this nonsense? Someone, please, pry the drooled-upon pages of Ayn Rand from author Ryan's sleeping grasp.

Yet for all his ideology, Ryan is spot-on about one big thing: the need to tackle the United States' out-of-control health-care costs. In my recent run for Congress in Los Angeles, I told startled Democrats that Ryan has this right: We can't go on spending twice as much per person on health care as every other advanced nation without better results. Is it really wise (or even politically smart) to trash Ryan for "savaging" Medicare by proposing to slow its growth, when we're already paying twice what other rich nations do to deliver quality care to seniors? Better to turn our guns on a medical-industrial complex that's diverting a trillion dollars a year from every other public and private purpose. If the left doesn't lead on reining in such excess, a decade from now we'll still have stagnant wages, and there won't be a public penny free to spend on a poor child.

It's the vital issue where Democrats ought to find common ground with Ryan. Unfortunately, the only thing as cartoonish as Ryan's lectures on liberals is the left's attack on Ryan for wanting to throw "Granny" off a cliff. Look for fresh protests at a Ryan book event near you.

A man who goes out of his way to say he won't watch "House of Cards" because of Frank Underwood's adultery and who cheers when his 10-year-old daughter bags "a really nice ten-point buck" with the rifle he bought her isn't for everyone. But Paul Ryan isn't trying to be for everyone just yet. To get that chance, you have to be the GOP presidential nominee first. And if the Wisconsin Republican has read his readers right, Ryan's way forward points up.