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.