Conservatives Should Stop Giving Trophies for Trying

More

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.

In another segment, Limbaugh makes sure to let us no that we should no longer think of Paul Ryan as just another politician who is capable of betraying his avowed ideals, as he has done before. Says Limbaugh:

We've got somebody who can articulate what we believe. It's in his heart. He doesn't need crib notes. He doesn't need briefings. He doesn't need a consultant to tell him what to think or how to answer a question. He knows it. He's lived it. It's his soul.

(I suggest that monologue be named "Prelude to Water Carrying" if Romney and Ryan win the election.)

Clark Judge makes the inevitable argument that the mere choice of Paul Ryan makes Mitt Romney more trustworthy:

In picking Paul Ryan, Governor Romney has signaled in a way that no one can doubt that as president he intends to turn the government around. He will, as his campaign now puts it, lead an American comeback.

Paul A. Rahe goes even farther:

For by making this choice, Mitt Romney is declaring war. There will be no evasion, no triangulation, no attempt to mask what is at stake in this election.

This has got to stop. There isn't anything wrong with Republicans highlighting the best qualities of the men on the GOP ticket. There isn't anything wrong with conservatives cheering on Paul Ryan's budget, and hoping that his place on the ticket will advance its prospects for passage, as it conceivably could.

Politics is a means of deciding how our country is to be governed, not an opportunity to form a series of crushes on politicians. But you wouldn't know it watching all the romantics in the Republican Party.

But the notion of Mitt Romney without triangulation or evasion is absurd. So is the idea that Paul Ryan's place on the ticket "guarantees" that Mitt Romney will lead an American comeback. Contra Limbaugh, principled conservatism is not in Ryan's soul (unless he sold his soul during the Bush years), and his narrative hasn't been one of consistency since 1995.

He needs to be skeptically scrutinized and held accountable like every other politician. Instead premature enthusiasm is destroying the base's ability to see clearly.

Just once I wish conservatives would wait until one of their ideas is actually passed into law to celebrate another victory. It was problematic enough when the right celebrated the Newt Gingrich House takeover as if small government was suddenly guaranteed, only to see the promise of the Contract with America fade. The Bush era brought its own silly talk of a permanent Republican majority. But these days the celebrations start before the first election is even won. A conservative base that is excited by a favorite pol as vice-presidential nominee gets excited too easily. Even November victory doesn't guarantee that any Paul Ryan plan will be signed into law.

Politics is a means of deciding how our country is to be governed, not an opportunity to form a series of crushes on politicians. But you wouldn't know it watching all the romantics in the Republican Party. I suspect Paul Ryan is going to break their hearts, whether by betraying them or merely by failing to live up to their expectations. But they'll bounce back like they always do. It doesn't matter how many times the GOP fails to shrink the size and scope of government.

There is always another Republican crush in waiting.

Jump to comments
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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Remote Warehouse Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In