Paul Ryan, Robot Nerd


Two quick thoughts about the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate:

[1] It hadn't occurred to me until I read Jim Tankersley's piece in National Journal that this election is now a war between class warfares. Obama wants the class warfare to be the poor and middle class against the rich, and Romney wants it to be the middle class and rich against the poor. I recognize the sense in which this isn't unusual; the middle class is often the contested turf when Republicans battle Democrats. Still, the selection of Ryan would seem to ensure that this war between warfares will be unusually prominent.

[2] Paul Ryan is lauded by conservatives as "the real thing" -- earnest, smart, ideologically committed. But, in terms of sheer visuals and atmospherics, won't he strike many Americans as "the fake thing"? A couple of years ago I was watching him on TV, and one of my daughters, who was then around 15 years old and isn't especially tuned in to party politics, walked into the room and, without having any idea who he was, said, "He looks like he's selling something." They used to say that Al Gore's problem was that he was "wooden." I think Ryan's problem is that he'll strike a lot of people as plastic. He calls to mind a robot I dimly recall from the General Electric "Carousel of Progress," which was a big attraction at Disneyland when I was a kid and presumably has long since perished, possibly because the robot in question was so annoying.

Compare Ryan to Joe Biden, who, whatever his faults, is an undeniably in-the-flesh human being. Biden nicely complements Obama, whom some people find too slick and scripted. (Scripted, God knows, Biden isn't.) Ryan, it seems to me, provides none of that counterweight to Romney. Yes, Ryan comes off as nerdier than Romney, but he doesn't come off as much more human. They seem like two slightly different variants of the classic gladhanding candidate for high-school student-body president. Both would be on the debate team, but the Romney model would also be on the football team, whereas the Ryan model would compete in interscholastic math tournaments. Most kids at my high school didn't especially like either type. They only voted for one of them because there was no alternative.

Update, 8/11, 12:50 p.m.: After I posted this, I received this tweet: "I think your characterization of Ryan is unfair. Watching videos of him talking to skeptics he comes off charismatically." Could be. And it's true that the video appearance my daughter commented on was a scripted one. I'm pretty sure it was his response to the 2011 State of the Union address:

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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