How a right-wing fanatic got to center stage

August 14, 2012

Budget-cutting maniac Paul Ryan is the Republican vice presidential nominee--which shows how far U.S. politics has shifted right, say Lance Selfa and Alan Maass.

ONE OF the most popular recent covers of the paper edition of Socialist Worker featured Leatherface, the killer in the 1970s horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre--but dressed up in a suit and tie, and brandishing his weapon of choice in front of the U.S. Capitol. The issue came out in January 2011, with a new GOP majority in the House of Representatives, and the headline read: "Republican budget slashers take charge in Congress."

If this non-fictional Leatherface had worn a nametag, it would have said: Rep. Paul Ryan. The Ayn Rand-spouting ideologue was chair of the House Budget Committee and architect of the program that guided the Republicans' successful 2010 campaign: A Tea Party-driven agenda for shutting down whole parts of the federal government and hacking away at Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid--while promising further tax breaks for the super-rich that would be three times bigger than the Bush-era giveaways.

Already at that point, Ryan's rise to prominence--touting ideas that a decade or two earlier would have consigned him to the crackpot fringe--was a symbol of how far mainstream politics had lurched to the right.

Paul Ryan speaks as Mitt Romney looks on

And now--so no one can possibly miss the point--Ryan has been chosen as the Republicans' vice presidential candidate.

Mitt Romney couldn't have picked a more compatible running mate--the multimillionaire vulture capitalist from a business dynasty who made big bucks on Wall Street, teaming up with another child of wealth, renowned for his determination to strangle the federal government in the name of reducing the deficit, while supporting tax breaks for the wealthy and a bailout of Wall Street that massively expanded the deficit.

LIBERAL GROUPS and publications went into overdrive as soon as Romney's choice was made public, with the message we'll be hearing from now until November: Look at what we get if Obama doesn't win. "This is it, America," read one of the e-mails that landed in our inboxes since last weekend. "Do you want a Romney-Ryan government that lets Wall Street banks off the hook for their destructive behavior, decimates middle-class priorities like Medicare and education, and rewards corporations that outsource our jobs?"

You can count on hearing lots more about how heartless and destructive Ryan and Romney's policies would be in the White House. But one thing you won't hear--and you should, because it's every bit as true and every bit as important to understanding Washington politics--is how far Barack Obama and the Democrats have followed Ryan and the Republicans down the road of austerity and neoliberalism.

"Let Wall Street banks off the hook"? Obama took up the Bush administration-engineered rescue of Wall Street--which both he and Ryan voted for as members of Congress--almost without alteration, thus helping the big banks return to record profits. Two days before Romney introduced Ryan as his running mate, the Obama Justice Department announced it wouldn't prosecute Goldman Sachs for peddling securities it knew would plunge in value, a fraud exposed in 2011 congressional hearings.

"Decimate middle-class priorities like Medicare and education"? Obama has been more aggressive than House Republicans at various points in pushing for trillions of dollars of cuts in "entitlement" programs like Social Security and Medicare, and his administration has gone further toward public school privatization than any Republican could have hoped to.

"Reward corporations"? Obama's bailout of the auto industry imposed historic new concessions on the United Auto Workers, and the centerpiece provision of his health care law will mandate millions of people to buy the insurance companies' defective products.

Both parties are now claiming that the 2012 election is about "stark differences" and "big issues." But what's really striking is how much Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan have in common--and that includes Ryan's claim to fame: his determination to cut government spending.

Back in February, Jeffrey Sachs, the onetime champion of neoliberalism-turned-sharp critic, ran the numbers and found that Obama's budget proposal would reduce primary federal spending (excluding interest payments on the debt) to 19.3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, compared to around 17 percent of GDP under Ryan's plan. As Sachs wrote:

The difference is modest, but the important fact is this. Both sides are committed to significant cuts in government programs relative to GDP. These cuts will be especially [harsh] in the discretionary programs for education; environmental protection; child nutrition; job re-training; transition to low-carbon energy; and infrastructure.

Paul Ryan is considered a credible figure in American politics--and not a kook from the fringe, peddling the dogmas of a right-wing scribbler of novels celebrating selfishness and elitism--because Washington has swung so far in his direction, not vice versa.

We should all be alarmed about Ryan and his extremist agenda--but also about the extent to which the bipartisan political establishment has embraced and adopted that agenda, despite some differences over the details.

LIKE MOST Republicans, Ryan tries to come off as a "regular guy" who's sincerely concerned about the "middle class." Like most Republicans, that's a fraud.

Ryan is a multimillionaire--the scion of a global construction firm, Ryan Incorporated Central, founded in 1884 by his great-grandfather. Ironically, considering his fanaticism about reducing the size of government, Ryan Incorporated has made millions off government contracts for road building, airport construction and SuperFund site cleanups.

When Ryan was preparing to run for Congress in the late 1990s, the family business hired him briefly as a "marketing consultant," an action that Ryan Lizza's New Yorker profile of Ryan called "a bit of résumé padding that gave him his only private-sector experience."

In other words, like many of his fellow conservatives who complain about career politicians and celebrate "real-world" business experience, Ryan has spent most of his adult life taking a paycheck from various jobs in Washington--as a Capitol Hill staffer for conservative Republicans such as Jack Kemp and Sam Brownback, a speechwriter at the right-wing think tank Empower America, and a member of Congress, elected at age 28.

Ryan made a name for himself as an "intellectual" in right-wing policy circles. His inspirations are the mid-20th century Austrian propagandists of extreme free-market economics, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, as well as objectivist guru Ayn Rand. At a 2005 conference marking the centenary of Rand's birth, Ryan told the assembled disciples, "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. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism."

In the closed world of the conservative intelligentsia, von Mises, Hayek and Rand are standard references. The Austrians are there to offer intellectual heft and a sense of apocalyptic urgency--Hayek dubbed the modern welfare state the "road to serfdom"--for neoliberal policies that are otherwise transparently designed to punish the poor and reward the rich.

But as a member of Congress, Ryan was willing to walk America down the "road to serfdom" when it was politically convenient. During the presidency of George Bush Jr., he was a loyal GOP vote for all of the administration policies that exploded the federal deficit: the massive Bush tax cuts for the rich, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the hated Toxic Asset Relief Program to bail out Wall Street.

And it should go without saying that Ryan's dedication to "freedom" doesn't include the freedom of women to control their reproductive lives or the freedom of LGBT people to marry whoever they want.

On these and many other social issues, Ryan fits comfortably among the bigots of the Republican Party. But he is better known for his stand on economic issues--as a "deficit hawk" and defender of corporate power.

In 2005, Ryan teamed up with then-Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire to push a plan for privatization of Social Security. Their proposal was to divert one-half of federal payroll taxes destined for the government retirement system into individually owned accounts. Apparently, getting this money into Wall Street's hands was more important to two supposed "deficit hawks" than the $2 trillion cost to the government for financing the transition.

The scheme was so far-fetched that George W. Bush--who had proclaimed that he would use the "political capital" of his 2004 reelection victory to privatize Social Security--called the Ryan-Sununu plan "irresponsible" and opted for a less expensive version.

Neither proposal went anywhere. Bush's plan became more unpopular the more he flogged it. Social Security privatization was dead within the year--the first major political reversal that started the Bush administration's death spiral through its second term.

In the various versions of the Ryan budget since then, Social Security privatization has receded into the background. Not so with Ryan's dreams of "reforming"--translation: wrecking--the Medicare health program for the elderly.

In early 2011, all but two members of the new Republican majority in the House voted in favor of a Ryan-authored budget proposal whose centerpiece was a plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system to subsidize seniors' purchase of expensive private health insurance.

That didn't go over any better with most people than Social Security privatization. Ryan eventually rejigged his Medicare plan to include a phase-in period starting with 55-year-olds and younger, and an option to stay in the traditional system. But that doesn't change the essence of what he's after--to dismantle a widely popular government program.

ALONGSIDE RYAN'S "entitlement reform" schemes come plans to slash government spending on every other program except defense.

Food stamps, federal loans for higher education, government support for national parks--all would take a hit if Ryan's budget ever became reality. In addition to repealing the Obama health care law, the Ryan budget envisions further cuts in the Medicaid health program for the poor--leaving as many as 27 million more Americans without coverage, according to an Urban Institute study.

In the long term, Ryan's budget "blueprint" would shrink the size of government spending to 15 percent of the U.S. GDP by 2050--about where things stood in 1950. But even that statistic doesn't capture the full lunacy of Ryan's proposal. In 1950, Medicare and Medicaid didn't exist, and the recently created Social Security accounted for a fraction of government spending. In Paul Ryan's future-world government, everything other than Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would be reduced to 3.75 percent of GDP.

And that includes the Pentagon. Mitt Romney is on record stating that he supports keeping military spending at about 4 percent of GDP. Ryan himself is tougher on the Pentagon and wants defense spending at 3 percent of GDP--which would leave less than 1 percent, or about $100 billion in today's dollars, to do everything else.

Ryan's short-term cutbacks are stunning enough--for example, according to the Washington Post's Brad Plumer, federal spending on transportation, including everything from air traffic control to rebuilding "structurally deficient" bridges and highways, would be 26.1 percent less in 2014 than it is today under the Ryan budget plan.

But over the long term, Ryan envisions a federal government that spends 91 percent less on everything other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense than it does today.

Of course, in the world according to Ryan, there's no choice but to make cuts on this scale--because he wants to dismantle large parts of the tax system that generates revenue for the government.

Apparently unsatisfied with the Bush-era cuts that reduced the tax rate for the top income bracket, paid by the very richest Americans, from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, Ryan wants to cap income taxes at 25 percent. Ryan would scrap the alternative minimum tax and capital gains tax, paid chiefly on investment income, too.

Earlier this year, Mitt Romney got a world of grief when he revealed his tax returns for 2010--he's refusing to hand over any other year--showing he paid taxes at a 13.9 percent rate, less than what many middle-income households pay. But if the Ryan tax plan was in effect, Romney--whose income mainly came from capital gains--would have paid an effective tax rate of 0.82 percent.

Ryan and the Republicans sell their proposals as necessary to get the deficit under control, but their plans do no such thing. The tax cuts by themselves would add an estimated $9.6 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). CBPP Robert Greenstein put the Ryan budget in context earlier this year:

The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document--one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse--on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation's history).

HOW COULD a politician whose signature contribution would have been considered "outside the bounds of mainstream discussion" now stand a chance of becoming vice president of the United States?

Ryan's ascendancy says a lot about the state of mainstream politics in the U.S. Not only have the Republicans moved so far to the right that Richard Nixon would probably be drummed out of the party as a liberal--but the Democrats might well consider Nixon too left-of-center to appeal to "swing voters."

Ryan's selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate will lead liberal Democrats to view the upcoming election with more urgency than ever. Veteran Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne is a good example:

The outcome of this election is now hugely consequential. If the Romney-Ryan ticket wins, conservatives will claim a mandate for Ryan's radical budget ideas. But if Obama wins, conservatives will no longer be able to argue that the public was given a tepid choice by a philosophically inconstant Romney. A rejection of Romney-Ryan would be a huge blow to the conservative agenda.

But this ignores Obama's record of surrendering to that agenda again and again--and his openly stated support for the policies Paul Ryan stands for, if in less extreme form.

For example, Obama supporters claim a Romney-Ryan victory in November would "open the door" to attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But that door has been wide open from the day Barack Obama took office.

Even as he pushed through a large economic stimulus law early in his presidency, Obama insisted that he also intended to "reach across the aisle" to negotiate "entitlement reform." When Congress failed to appoint a commission on deficit reduction with the power to recommend big cuts, Obama did the job himself, appointing as co-chairs right-wing dingbat Alan Simpson and conservative Democrat Erskine Bowles.

The Simpson-Bowles commission didn't get the 14 votes needed among its 18 members to put its recommendations before Congress for an up-or-down vote on the full package. But its proposal--for some $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, with three-quarters coming through spending and benefits cuts, plus major changes in Social Security and Medicare--are still viewed as goals by the White House.

When the White House and congressional Republicans battled over raising the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, Obama offered a "grand bargain" that included massive cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. As the New York Times summarized the White House offer:

The White House agreed to cut at least $250 billion from Medicare in the next 10 years and another $800 billion in the decade after that, in part by raising the eligibility age. The administration had endorsed another $110 billion or so in cuts to Medicaid and other health care programs, with $250 billion more in the second decade. And in a move certain to provoke rebellion in the Democratic ranks, Obama was willing to apply a new, less generous formula for calculating Social Security benefits, which would start in 2015.

Don't think for a moment we've heard the last of such proposals from Democrats--if Obama wins in November, he'll try again. As Ryan Lizza reported in the New Yorker, Obama's second term would probably begin not with any of the programs to help working people that liberals are touting now, but with "major deficit reduction and serious reform of taxes and entitlements."

E.J. Dionne claims "this election really and truly matters"--and many people who rightly fear the policies that Paul Ryan stands for will use his selection as their reason for casting a vote for Obama, however disappointed they might be in his record.

But the reality is that Ryan's program is part of the mainstream debate today because the entire political spectrum has lurched to the right--Republicans and Democrats alike.

Ryan's budget blueprint makes Democratic proposals for cutting Social Security, Medicare and other programs seem sane and moderate by comparison. But the Democratic cuts are still cuts--they can't be accepted as the "best we can do."

Those who want to build a fighting working-class movement shouldn't settle for a less extreme version of austerity and neoliberalism. We need to build an alternative to the two-party system that turns the priorities of the status quo upside down--and mobilizes the power of working people in a struggle away from the ballot box.

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