Paul Ryan's Attack on Cronyism Is Mostly Just Talk

He eloquently summed up the problem with insiders who influence big government. But what evidence is there that the GOP wants to fix it?

Paul Ryan's speech to The Heritage Foundation, "Saving the American Idea: Rejecting Fear, Envy and the Politics of Division," is getting rave reviews on the right. Rush Limbaugh thought that "the whole speech was superb." The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin writes that "Ryan's tone and substance should be a reminder that politics can aspire to better things and appeal to our best and not worst instincts." She added, "Once again, a voice of sanity has spoken up."

Says Peggy Noonan:

He is doing something unique in national politics.

He thinks. He studies. He reads. Then he comes forward to speak, calmly and at some length, about what he believes to be true. He defines a problem and offers solutions, often providing the intellectual and philosophical rationale behind them. Conservatives naturally like him--they agree with him--but liberals and journalists inclined to disagree with him take him seriously and treat him with respect.

I've now watched the speech twice. My review is mixed. The long beginning is boilerplate about American ideals. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You know the drill. Then there's fodder for partisans who value being told that they're on the side of the angels while their opponents are jerks. It follows the script. The other guy is out being a dishonest demagogue, coarsening the discourse and misleading the voters while we're here fighting for everything right and true. Watching it, I thought, this is why most Americans hate watching politicians.

There are a few paragraphs arguing that President Obama is wrong to want to raise taxes on the rich for all the reasons you'd expect from a conservative Republican; a sensible observation that we're facing an alarmingly big deficit and need to reform entitlements; and an apparently incorrect assertion that Americans enjoy more class mobility than their Europeans counterparts. (That's actually a big deal since the structure of his whole political argument depends on it being true.) Mixed throughout are retellings of ongoing partisan battles that are... mighty selective.

And then the interesting part:

Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country - corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless. Ironically, equality of outcome is a form of inequality - one that is based on political influence and bureaucratic favoritism.

That's the real class warfare that threatens us: A class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society. And their gains will come at the expense of working Americans, entrepreneurs, and that small businesswoman who has the gall to take on the corporate chieftain.

Every word of that excerpt strikes me as correct, and much of it could form the basis of a sound critique of the Obama Administration. If the Republican Party and Rep. Paul Ryan were truly dedicated to tackling those problems, I'd be downright enthusiastic at the prospects of GOP advances.

But come on.

Am I to believe that the right has been zealously trying all these years to take on corporate chieftains and crony capitalists? That the folks illegitimately "atop society" are quaking in their boots at the idea of a GOP Senate and Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, or Herman Cain in the White House? Let's think about the frontrunners for the GOP nomination. Romney and Cain both supported bailing out the Wall Street banks, what many conservatives consider the most extreme, disgusting example of corporations with political influence gaming the system in memory. The Texas Enterprise Fund under Perry is a flagrant example of politicians doling out special treatment to favored corporations, and distorting the market's ability to pick winners and losers by doing it from the statehouse.

(And frequently on behalf of past or future campaign donors.)

As USA Today reports:

In 2003, Romney created the Green Energy Fund -- a $15 million program designed "to provide equity capital, loans and management assistance to Massachusetts-based renewable energy businesses."

In 2011, Romney said the federal government "should not be in the business of steering investment toward particular politically favored approaches" and criticized the Obama administration's energy policies, particularly how it invests in alternative energy.

Cain also supported the bank bailouts. In addition, "Over the past several months, businessman Herman Cain has spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash on his own books and pamphlets... The money -- which went to Cain's company T.H.E New Voice -- represented a significant percentage of the total funds raised by his campaign." Clever, isn't he?

Perhaps most maddening of all, there are two GOP candidates, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, who are uncompromising critics of "A class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society." Have the Heritage Foundation and Ryan done their best to elevate those men, introduce them to a wider swath of the GOP electorate, raise money for their campaigns, and find more candidates who think like them?

Nope.

Of course, Ryan doesn't bear substantial responsibility for the Republican presidential field. But that doesn't rescue him from the inconvenient fact that he supported TARP too! As Daniel Larison puts it, "the TARP that Ryan supported is a classic example of 'a system based on political influence' that rewards failed companies and successful companies without regard to merit or outcome. Fortunately, Ryan is against all that now! Look, he has said so. He doesn't like the 'class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.' He just votes for the latter's bailouts and defends their interests, and occasionally writes lengthy articles in which he conflates those interests with a defense of the 'free enterprise ethic.'" That's pretty much it.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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