Conservatives Should Stop Giving Trophies for Trying

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These days it's common for Republican politicians to become movement heroes without ever accomplishing anything.

paul ryan full.jpg
Reuters

It's easier than ever to become a hero in the conservative movement.

The highest praise is no longer reserved for figures who actually achieve policy victories, like reforming the tax code, beating back inflation, or improving America's position compared to hostile powers. Today results are unnecessary -- everyone who seems to be trying hard gets a trophy.

Consider some of the popular figures on the right in recent years. Joe the Plumber. Sarah Palin. Michele Bachmann. Herman Cain. They've achieved no more than criticizing liberals and extolling Tea Party ideals.

Had they inspired mere optimism or affection their reception wouldn't be so confounding. Instead they've been supercharged stars, burning bright and burning out as fast.

Rep. Paul Ryan has achieved more in government than any of them, even if you look past all of the ill-conceived votes he cast during the Bush Administration, irresponsible governance for which he has since apologized. So let's judge him based on his behavior in the Obama era. His entitlement reform and deficit-reduction proposals have impressed many on the right. Fair enough. Ryan has moved the national conversation in a direction they find beneficial. It would in fact be foolhardy to repudiate him over his past transgressions for lack of purity.

And if conservatives were merely optimistic about his potential, given his success rallying the GOP around his new agenda, who could fault them, especially given the dearth of other fiscally conservative champions? Rob Long makes the case for that approach. And entitlement reform is certainly an urgent priority.

But why are many conservatives acting (as they did four years ago with Sarah Palin), as though he already belongs in the conservative hall of fame? As if he's already at the finish line with the flag waving? I don't get it. Why are they acting like he's already home?

The canonization process begins with conservatives telling themselves a fake version of history that conveniently leaves out Ryan's apostasies, as if he's been completely principled all along.

Here's Rush Limbaugh doing just that:

You know where I first met Paul Ryan? Way, way back, this has to be in the early nineties. I forget the year, but I'm thinking it's gotta be before 1995. And there was some celebratory thing happening at Bill Bennett's house. It might have been one of his birthdays, I'm not sure, in Washington, on a Saturday. I flew up there for it, and I landed at Dulles at the same time that Bennett was arriving on a United flight from California. So I got in my car and I went over to the United terminal, and I picked Bennett up, and we drove into town, and he said, "I need to stop at Empower America first."

Now, Empower America was a thing set up by Steve Forbes. It was a miniature conservative think tank. It was a place where Bennett and Jack Kemp hung around and thought things, and they wrote things, and then they did things based on what they thought and what they wrote. It was a Saturday afternoon. I'll never forget. We walked into Empower America and I was introduced to this young, energetic go-getter. He looked like somebody who spent 24/7 at the place.

It was Paul Ryan.

He was there doing work at Empower America for Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp. He was also there with a guy named Pete Wehner. Pete worked for Karl Rove in the Bush 43 White House. The people that came out of Empower America had a profound conservative pedigree, a profound conservative indoctrination. Ryan, as it turns out, didn't need it. He was born into it and had it when he arrived there, but he learned a tremendous amount.

Paul Ryan has always been at war with Oceania.

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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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