Paul Ryan, Media Mastermind

by James Downie | April 8, 2011

[Guest post by James Downie]

Perhaps the strangest part of the furor around the Ryan budget proposal has been his ability to snow the media into treating him as a serious wonk, a thinker of “brave” thoughts. Then again, as Jon has written many times, media outlets seem to have fallen head over heels for Ryan’s “just a plain accountant” persona. (Note: Because experts hold that no politician can snow his own party’s news arm, I’ve excluded Fox News from the following survey.) The romance began to blossom all the way back in 2009:

'Morning Joe,' March 10, 2009
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Mike, let me ask you this question. Don't you think that Paul Ryan should run the Republican Party? And I'm serious. He's young, he's intelligent, he's Irish.
MIKE BARNICLE: Yeah.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: We could get him up to the Red Sox, watch some games.
MR. BARNICLE: Yeah. He's my guy now.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: I'm seriously -- I'm serious, though. There have been no inspiring leaders. This guy's got -- admit it. He's got answers.
MR. BARNICLE: And he has a plan!
MR. SCARBOROUGH: He's got a plan! He doesn't just say no!
(Cross talk.)
REP. RYAN: And also -- hey, don't forget, I'm a Green Bay Packers fan, as well.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Oh, wow.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Packers! We love the Packers! You treated Brett Favre terribly --
MS. BRZEZINSKI: Where've you been?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Don't you like him, Mika?
MS. BRZEZINSKI: I like him.
(Exchange aside.)
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Hey, Paul, if you're ever up in New York, we'd love to have you sit around the table.
MS. BRZEZINSKI: On set.
REP. RYAN: All right.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: This is going to be a weekly occurrence, if your press people will allow it. Paul Ryan for speaker.
MS. BRZEZINSKI: There you go.

And continued during the health care fight, where the congressman, who voted for two Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D before sermonizing about fiscal responsibility, was lauded for his intellectual honesty:

Interview with Politico’s Mike Allen, March 23, 2010
ALLEN: You’re known for being pretty intellectually honest. Do you worry that some Republicans oversold their hands, overplayed their hands portrayed too much social—
RYAN: I think you get it on both sides. So yes I think you do get it both sides. […]
ALLEN: On your list of words, you’re known as an advocate for civility. Do you worry about someone shouting “baby killer”?
RYAN: Yes, I heard about that. Yes, it’s horrible. Yes.

After the health care fight was over, old hands continued to swoon:

'Charlie Rose,' September 13, 2010
CHARLIE ROSE: Here is my impression. You tell me I’m wrong. The reason businesses are not investing as much today than they might is not because of the tax rate. It’s more because of some uncertainty about the regulatory structure.
PAUL RYAN: I think at this current time that’s probably the prevailing problem is uncertainty about the tax structure. But I would say tax --
CHARLIE ROSE: The regulation structure.
PAUL RYAN: Regulation, excuse me. But I would also say our tax rates matter a great deal. We’re pushing money and companies overseas because of our tax code. […]In the next few years, partly because of this tipping point of more and more people living off the government than for themselves and of the fiscal crisis that coming due, that going to determine what kind of country we are going to be. And that’s why I say it there really is sort of at that time decisional American idea model, a reliable sturdy safety net that we need to repair and save from going into bankruptcy with an opportunity society on top of it, or more of the sort of social democracy, welfare state that you see often displayed in western Europe. Those models don’t work.
CHARLIE ROSE: There is much to be admired about an opportunity society.
PAUL RYAN: Absolutely.
CHARLIE ROSE: And there is much to be admired by entrepreneurship. There is much to be admired by giving individuals and communities the capacity to do for themselves.
PAUL RYAN: That’s right.

In one instance, Ryan himself actually joined the media himself, resulting in coverage of Ryan that was no more critical.

CNBC’s 'Squawk Box,' February 8, 2011
CARL QUINTANILLA: Got a real treat for you this morning. He is considered one of the Republican Party`s young guns. He is the chairman of the Budget Committee. Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is our guest host for the next couple of hours.[…]
QUINTANILLA: With the chairman...
RYAN: With Ben, yeah.
QUINTANILLA: ... of the Fed. What do you want -- what do you want to have happen? What do you want? […]
BECKY QUICK: You`re -- you're saying that this is a position you've put out there. You`re very open to compromise.
RYAN: Of course.
QUICK: You`d like to hear from other people. Because I think a lot of times in Congress, I'm not saying this is with you, but with other people that I've seen come through Congress, they are partisan. They believe their beliefs. They`re not willing to listen to anybody from the other side. I guess my question is: Where are the other people?
RYAN: Well, we have to decide what we want to be as a country, what kind of a nation do we want to be, and what do we think makes us great.

And, as Washington’s thoughts have focused on budgets, the stream of admiration has become a flood:

New York Times, January 18
As floor debate on the repeal measure opened on Tuesday, Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Budget Committee, who is a respected voice on fiscal issues, declared that the health care law would “accelerate our country’s path toward bankruptcy.”
CNNMoney, January 26
“Ryan, a longtime member of the House Budget Committee, which he now heads, is steeped in the math of deficits and debt and has crafted his own fiscal overhaul plan. That plan -- the "Roadmap for America's Future" -- proposes sweeping changes to Social Security, Medicare and the tax code that would be a significant departure from the status quo, and mainline Republican thinking.”
On Tuesday, Ryan put aside his own ideas, instead presenting the Republican vision for America, with a laser focus on the deficit. And that's what Republicans are looking for.
Politico, February 16
Mr. MIKE ALLEN: So are you committed to doing something on Medicare?
Representative PAUL RYAN: Yes, we have to fix these problems.
Mr. ALLEN: OK. OK. Are you committed do--doing something on Medicaid?
Rep. RYAN: We think Medicaid reform's a very important part of it.
Mr. ALLEN: Are you also going to provide leadership on Social Security?
Rep. RYAN: So we're going to look at all these issues.
'Good Morning America,' February 25
George Stephanopolous: “Will you commit to coming up with a plan that reduces the deficit by more than the President?
Ryan: “Of course we will. That's not easy to accomplish, George, because the President punted on the budget. Look, I'm very disappointed. I was actually hoping for some sincere presidential leadership. […]
Stephanopolous: How are you, how are you gonna do that, Congressman? I take you at your word. But it's gonna be something to see, because you've all ruled out any tax increases, revenue increases of any kind. That means you're gonna have to come up with another $1.6 trillion more in savings than the President just to get to even.
CNBC, March 2
MARIA BARTIROMO: I mean, we are talking about a spending freeze, which the president said we are, right now, that is where we are right now, a spending freeze, but it is hard to see it as a spending freeze, I guess, because of the fact that we have seen so much spending in 2010.
REP. RYAN: This is a massive spending floor to lock in the massive spending gains they got through Congress the last two years. So "freeze" may be a euphemism for something else. It is really a floor to lock in gains, and we want to take those gains away.
MS. BARTIROMO: Yeah, that is a great way to put it. […]
MS. BARTIROMO: Based on what you saw come out of the White House, is it fair to say that this administration is not taking the fiscal deficit, the debt that this country faces as its number one priority, as a serious issue?
REP. RYAN: I will quote The Washington Post, which is normally in agreement with the White House, and they punted, they ducked from the issues. They chose to walk away from the biggest economic problem of our time.
CNN, April 5
BASH (voice-over): House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan knows his new 2012 proposal is far-reaching and politically perilous and says that's the point.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), CHAIR, BUDGET COMMITTEE: This is not a budget. This is a cause. We are not just here so we get this lapel pin that says we're a member of Congress. We are here to try and fix this country's problems.
BASH: His plan would cut nearly $6 trillion -- yes, that's trillion with a T -- over 10 years and, in the same period, reduce the deficit by $4.4 trillion.
RYAN: For too long, Washington has not been honest with the American people.
BASH: The House GOP proposal calls for a complete transformation of what have been politically untouchable programs, entitlements.[…]
Those massive changes are largely aimed at tackling the enormous debt and deficit. Even so, the budget would not create a surplus for some 28 years.
(on camera): The budget would not see a surplus until 2040.
RYAN: Till -- late 2030s, that's right.
BASH: Right, for about 28 years. For a generation.
RYAN: Right. So, Dana, this just shows you how deep of a hole our country is in.
BASH (voice-over): Not surprisingly, Democrats rush to attack the plan. […]Wolf -- it's an important but -- this is now a dialogue started on very big, very tough issues that until now, because of the political risk, people really haven't wanted to try to tackle.
'ABC World News Tonight,' April 5
DIANE SAWYER: And someone else also entered the fray today on the issue of the huge national debt. A man who has issued a kind of political double dare you to both sides. He is House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and he told Jon Karl that today is the day simply to face the truth.
JONATHAN KARL (VOICEOVER) For Paul Ryan, this is not just about government spending. It's a life or death struggle for the US economy.
RYAN: The nation's fiscal trajectory is simply not sustainable.
(Voiceover) Ryan, who once worked as a waiter to make ends meet, is 41 and has three kids. The scope of his plan is staggering. Consider that while the President and Republicans are on the verge of shutting the government down over less than $61 billion in spending cuts, Ryan is calling for $6.2 trillion in cuts over the next ten years… Ryan has been working on this for years.
Bloomberg TV, April 6
BETTY LIU, BLOOMBERG NEWS ANCHOR: But for now, let me get back to the budget debate that is going on right now on the Hill. Peter Cook is standing by with Congressman Paul Ryan.
Peter?
PETER COOK, BLOOMBERG NEWS CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Betty, he is the man with the plan. The Republican budget just unveiled yesterday.
And today, Paul Ryan is going to try and pass his first test in the House Budget Committee, get that plan on its way to the floor of the House of Representatives.
First of all, thank you for the time.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: Good to be with you.
COOK: You are either the bravest man in Washington right now or the man who wants to do in the poor and the elderly with your changes in Medicare, Medicaid. Which is it?

Before running for Congress himself in 1998, Ryan served as legislative director for Sam Brownback—hardly a wonk’s dream senator—and wrote speeches for Jack Kemp and others at the conservative think tank Empower America (which merged with another think tank in 2004 to become FreedomWorks). Ryan's previous work at places with policy experts does not make him a wonk, just as reading books for fun does not automatically make someone a good writer. He simply knows the Washington game, and plays the media as well as anyone.

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