The conservative scion vice-presidential nominee seeks to finish the work that the GOP started in 1964, with one crucial revision.
When Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan would be his vice-presidential choice, the congressman from the Badger State was ebullient. Bounding toward the podium during the glorified photo-op that served as his formal introduction, Ryan's zeal was such that an uninformed observer might have thought the Republican ticket had already won. But Romney and Ryan weren't the only ones with big grins and bigger dreams that morning. Bloomberg's Jonathan Alter, a favorite of the White House, soon reported that Democrats weren't happy about the Ryan pick. They were "ecstatic."
The reason? Despite his affable, aw-shucks demeanor, Ryan is the most ideological and potentially divisive nominee to the White House in a half century. Not since Barry Goldwater proclaimed extremism in defense of liberty to be no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice no virtue has a major party candidate so forcefully challenged America's political status quo.
As Rick Perlstein documented in Before the Storm, his acclaimed history of Goldwater's presidential campaign, 1964 was a thrilling time for conservatives. After decades of conservatives-in-name-only like Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller running the GOP, the party was once again home to America's hard-right. But it was also a thrilling time for liberals and Democrats: Goldwater lost in one of the greatest landslides in U.S. history.
For a number of reasons -- the economy and the polarized nature of politics today chief among them -- a 1964-style blowout in 2012 is unlikely. But even if jobs were plentiful and bipartisan comity permeated the halls of Congress, President Obama would still struggle to rack up numbers anywhere near Lyndon Johnson's 61 percent. Democrats today face a lower ceiling of support than did LBJ. President Clinton, who ran for reelection during a strong, peacetime economy, was unable to crack 50 percent. In 2008, the stars aligned for the Democrats to a degree not seen since 1932, and even then Obama only managed to capture 53 percent of the popular vote.
Crucially, a nation once split almost equally between self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives has been transformed: righties today outnumber lefties nearly two-to-one. Forty-eight years ago, Goldwater's views on economics, foreign policy, and the welfare state were all seen as occupying the rightmost extreme of mainstream American politics -- just a shade removed from the John Birch Society. Nowadays, Goldwater's fondness for economists like Milton Friedman, generals like Curtis LeMay, and presidents like Calvin Coolidge would place him well within the Republican mainstream. (On drugs, gays, and God, however, Goldwater's influence is considerably less felt.)
It's no coincidence. As Perlstein explains, the grassroots campaign to nominate Barry Goldwater connected dozens of conservative activists to one another and helped lead to the establishment of today's "vast right-wing conspiracy." The interlocking network of nonprofits, think tanks, newspapers, magazines, and book clubs is a direct byproduct of the Goldwater moment.
Today, this counter-establishment is the feeder system that nurtures and grooms up-and-coming conservatives from around the country; it provides them with the connections they'll need to navigate the choppy waters of backroom politics and the national Republican Party; and it's the archipelago of internships, fellowships, research positions, and staffer jobs that allows a young conservative idealist to climb her way from being just another nobody milling about D.C.'s bottom to conservatism's highest peaks. This establishment's list of alumni who once did, or still do, hold authority within the GOP is too long to recite, but sitting atop it is none other than former think tanker and Hill staffer Paul Ryan.
Ryan, whose influence on the Republican Party today has been compared to that of Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan, has spent his entire career within the right-wing infrastructure that rose from the ashes of 1964. Stylistically, Goldwater and Ryan could hardly be more different. Goldwater was severe, humorless, unbending. Like the Soviets he so feared and despised, his countenance was forever grim, as if his mission on Earth was far too serious to allow even a glimmer of frivolity or cheer to sneak through. Ryan, on the other hand, is deservedly celebrated for his unpretentious, approachable, and optimistic demeanor. He is the type to insist on buying a campaign journalist a hot dog on the trail; Goldwater seemed like a man who would consider hunger a sign of weakness.
Yet Ryan shares his predecessor's belief that the good life is one of struggle and self-creation. A 2010 version of Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" budget -- in which the Wisconsin congressman advocated transforming Medicare into a public-private voucher system and reducing federal discretionary spending to levels unseen in decades -- featured what the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza rightly described as an uncommonly philosophical introduction. Before awing the reader with page after page of graphs, charts, diagrams, and figures, Ryan tells a dispiriting story of a welfare state that dilutes the nation's natural inclination toward self-sufficiency. "[O]ver time, Americans have been lured into viewing government ... as their main source of support," Ryan laments. "The trend drains individual initiative and personal responsibility ... It subtly and gradually suffocates the creative potential for prosperity."
Ryan has spent his entire career within the right-wing infrastructure that rose from the ashes of Goldwater's defeat in 1964.
The treatise on what Ryan calls the "moral consequences" of the welfare state recalls nothing so much Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative. In the surprise bestseller, he warned, "The effect of Welfarism on freedom will be felt later on -- after its beneficiaries have become its victims, after dependence on government has turned into bondage and it is too late to unlock the jail." Ryan's rhetoric is never quite so apocalyptic, but his frequent warnings that his country approaches a threshold "beyond which the Nation will be unable to change course ... [with] disastrous fiscal consequences, and an erosion of economic prosperity and the American character itself" come close.
The Republican Party's antipathy toward the welfare state is well known. Less appreciated is the fact that what really defined Goldwater in the public's eye was his comfort with, or even celebration of, the violence of the state. Goldwater on foreign policy was more Bill Kristol than Ron Paul; as historian Thomas Sugrue put it, Goldwater wanted "a strong military ready not just to contain but to trample its Communist enemies."
Ryan has distinguished himself for his views on domestic rather than foreign policy. But insofar as he has a foreign-policy worldview, it's the same as any rank-and-file congressional Republican of the last 10 years: Spend more money on military defense at home and less time "apologizing" for American actions abroad. Fred Kaplan of Slate has written that Ryan "appears to know next to nothing about international affairs." But it's unlikely Goldwater would care whether Ryan made Herman Cain sound like Henry Kissinger as long as he backed limitless military spending. And as a bizarre flare-up earlier this year showed, Ryan's willingness to feed the military-industrial complex surpasses even the Pentagon's.
Yet for all the similarities between Goldwater then and Paul Ryan now, there is one conspicuous difference: Unlike the devoutly Catholic Ryan, Goldwater mistrusted -- hated, really -- the Religious Right. Responding to the leader of the Moral Majority's campaign to keep Sandra Day O'Connor from the Supreme Court, Goldwater proclaimed, "every good Christian should kick [Jerry] Falwell right in the ass." Ryan, who along with Todd Akin and 171 other members of Congress cosponsored a bill outlawing abortion except in cases of "forcible rape," would never wield such language against the GOP's "values voters," because he is one of them. Romney's vice-presidential pick has integrated religious fundamentalism into his economic and diplomatic conservatism in a way Goldwater never could -- and never wanted.
This is one of the great ironies of the modern Republican Party: Without the Religious Right that Goldwater so despised, there would be no Reagan Revolution, no Contract with America, and no George W. Bush presidency. No defense buildup in the early 1980s; no tax cuts in 1981, 2002, and 2003. Throughout the past 30-plus years, it's been the Moral Majority and its fellow travelers knocking on doors, pounding pavement, and writing checks to keep Republicans ascendant in Washington. As the party's stance on taxes, foreign policy, and domestic spending drifted closer to Goldwater and further from the political center, it was Tony Perkins -- not Milton Friedman -- making sure the GOP held onto its 51 percent.
Goldwater might consider it a Faustian bargain, but we've no reason to think Paul Ryan would agree. As his recent appearance at the Family Research Council's annual Values Voters summit attested, Ryan's a man of the entire Republican Party. He doesn't pick and choose. It's a kind of intellectual ecumenicalism that would've had the doctrinaire Goldwater grinding his teeth in frustration. But Goldwater lost. He lost big. Ryan may often write, talk, and think like Goldwater -- but he'll be damned if he's going to lose like him, too.