Paul Ryan has labeled efforts to tie him to the philosophy of radical ego-maniac Ayn Rand “a canard.” In Ryan’s defense, it’s difficult to see why his political opponents persist in linking Ryan to Rand. Perhaps it’s when he said, “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” Or maybe it’s just that he looks like the kind of douchebag ex-boyfriend who likes Ayn Rand.
But individual political philosophies can evolve and take on complex nuances (except for true Ayn Rand devotees, because the staunch atheist was the first to demand of her followers that “Thou Shalt Have No Gods Before Me”). Paul Ryan came of age in politics working for former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, first at Kemp’s think tank, “Empower America,” and then serving as a speechwriter for Kemp during his failed 1996 vice-presidential bid. Ryan himself cited Kemp as a “huge influence” on him. Presumably in more ways than taking 8-letter names into losing VP bids.
Ayn Rand is obviously a more inflammatory figure and highlighting the strains of her particular brand of crazy that seeped into Ryan’s policy is an important, and often hilarious, endeavor. But the media (well, the mainstream media — some conservative outlets are on top of the issue) should devote more attention to Kemp’s influence because comparing and contrasting Ryan to his political mentor sharpens our understanding of Paul Ryan. And what we find is a stunted shade of Kemp that draws from Kemp’s political style and loudly proclaims the same broad ideological principles, yet shows very little of Kemp’s moral core and utterly lacks Kemp’s knack for crafting innovative policies to match ideology to practical realities. He’s a lot like the new Star Trek movie. But we’ll get to that later.
In Craig Gilbert’s Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal profile, he states that:
[Ryan] cites the late Kemp as a “huge influence” not just in tax policy, but in his “brand of inclusive conservatism, his ‘pro-growth,’ happy warrior style. That was infectious to me.”
Most people with experience working directly with Ryan describe him as a very earnest, very nice guy. This contrasts with the popular view of Ryan as a mean-spirited demagogue, but that public face is largely a product of his leadership role in the most hated Congress in history. Did you know “Communist takeover of America” has a higher approval rating than the Boehner-Cantor-Ryan Congress? Now you know!
Historically he enjoyed immense support in his Democratic-leaning district because of his affable brand of “retail politics.” As John Nichols of The Nation noted, “Paul Ryan was able to create this image at home as nice guy, always in the Fourth of July parade, pretty good constituent service.” But all that changed as Ryan’s profile in Washington expanded. Nichols continues, “a lot of people weren’t fully aware of what his agenda was. When they became aware, he started coming back for these town hall meetings, they were packed with angry, angry people.” Or at least people unwilling to swallow his bullshit.
Being a “happy warrior” is not inconsistent with raising the ire of political opponents. Still, it’s hard to imagine Jack Kemp responding to tough questions by charging constituents to attend town hall meetings. In Ryan’s defense, the people in the linked story were kicked out of the town hall for trying to interrupt Ryan, but in their defense they legitimately were pointing out that Ryan was trying to close the meeting to the public with a pay wall. Kemp seemingly thrived in debates with a smile on his face rather than running from disagreement. Remember when that dick (Neil Munro for the record) interrupted Barack Obama during a speech? Obama responded by telling him to wait and then answered the guy’s question. Paul Ryan doesn’t roll like that.
Obviously Paul Ryan identifies himself as pro-growth and embraces the philosophy of massive tax cuts to spur growth endorsed by Jack Kemp. While most people credit Ronald Reagan with America’s lurch toward supply-side economics, it was actually Kemp who served as the driving intellectual force for this economic policy. But the supply-side vision of Paul Ryan fundamentally breaks from the optimistic, if untrue, Kemp worldview.
The supply-side economic plan embraced by Kemp rested on the fundamental belief that massive tax cuts would increase government revenue, pay off the debt, and ultimately allow the government to continue spending. This fused supply-side economics to Kemp’s optimistic worldview. On the other hand, Paul Ryan presents the modern, distorted form of supply-side economics that demands tax cuts with no illusion that they will accomplish anything but empty the country’s coffers. Supply-side is now a “Clockwork Orange” — an empty philosophical gesture robbed of the motivating animus of Kemp’s era.
One of the saddest and yet least surprising quotes I found in researching this story was this one from the National Review (citing Stephen Moore of WSJ), “Both of these divergences…reflect the fact that Ryan and Kemp came of age in different eras. When Kemp was rising in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the debt did not loom like a black cloud over the national political debate as it does today.” National Review presented this sentence completely unironically. Nary a nod to the fact that Kemp’s blind faith in his tax cuts caused the bankrupting of the government they describe. But it’s this bankrupted government that allows Ryan to juxtapose himself as a “serious” supply-sider (note how quickly we’ve moved from “happy” warrior) because he will call for supply-side tax cuts while simultaneously outlining the deep budget cuts, conveniently on the backs of the poor and elderly, that “must” be made to cure the deficit that is entirely of supply-side’s own making.
And this is the basis of the most tragic gap between Kemp and Ryan. Jack Kemp played professional football during the 1960s and consequently observed the civil rights movement vicariously through his African-American teammates. This made the otherwise conservative Kemp committed to the cause of civil rights. Rev. Jesse Jackson said of Kemp that “He talked that kind of inclusive, expansive talk. That’s how he developed a reputation that gained him disfavor among the right-wing types and gained him an appreciation with people beyond his type.” Kemp also spoke passionately about the plight of the poor in America. This is not to suggest that Kemp was a liberal. But this quote from Newt Gingrich reveals a lot about Kemp’s fundamental empathy:
“Mr. Kemp sees ‘social issues’ as a seamless garment that ought not to be limited to abortion and gay rights. ‘Education is a social issue,’ he tells me. ‘So (are) poverty, drugs, crime, teen pregnancy — these bother a lot of liberals and Democrats as well as conservatives and Republicans.’
Mr. Kemp believes that the way he speaks about these subjects is as important as the positions he takes. ‘It’s important to express it in a way in which you’re not portrayed as uncivil or insensitive or judgmental or mean-spirited,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t mean you’re tolerant of evil. You can be intolerant of evil and still be tolerant of the plight of a person or family.'”
Contrast this description with Paul Ryan. Ryan has offered no legislation to address these issues (which isn’t a surprise since he’s only passed 2 bills in his career). Ryan has an abysmal record on civil rights. His vaunted budget has drawn condemnation from Catholic bishops for its indifference to poverty. Gingrich’s quote notes that Kemp believed in positively engaging social issues. Ryan seems to lack these morals.
Again, a conservative doesn’t need to embrace the NRA to care about the poor (yeah I mean the National Recovery Act…obviously conservatives do have to embrace the other NRA). But despite all of the fixation on Ryan’s “intelligence,” there is little evidence of anything beyond a clever ability to find selective support for the same, tired “tax cuts good” mantra of Grover Norquist. Kemp was also doomed by his unwillingness to compromise on certain ideological issues, but possessed genuine intelligence for melding his ideology to practical realities. While Ryan touts that “tax cuts for the wealthy will trickle-down,” Kemp recognized that the plight of the inner-cities required a faster response and championed a long-discarded idea proposed by Robert Kennedy targeting tax cuts directly to inner city neighborhoods. Instead of the “blank check and a prayer” that defines Ryan and the rest of modern supply-side tax policy, Kemp offered tax cuts to those willing to contribute to solving (in the eyes of a business-minded conservative at least) urban decay. Ryan shows no interest in creativity or innovation — just blind ideological proselytizing.
In the end, Paul Ryan certainly draws from his mentor Jack Kemp in their shared, unwavering commitment to cutting taxes. But Ryan’s brand of economics is a pessimistic, insular vision robbed of empathy and fully cognizant of its own failure to actually expand the tax base and increase revenue.
Ryan calls to mind the rebooted Star Trek — Kirk’s there, Spock’s there, there’s a spaceship — and yet the movie is not Star Trek because the filmmakers didn’t understand that the show wasn’t about “two guys named Kirk and Spock flying in space and blowing things up.”