Ryan VP pick signals shift

Written by: Connor Stangler

The Republican Party is nothing if not resilient. During the past few weeks, it has weathered a storm of regrettable comments and an actual tropical storm. But neither Todd Akin’s gaffe nor Hurricane Isaac could dampen the revolutionary mood at the Republican National Convention this week. The party has a smart and capable nominee with Mitt Romney, an opponent who can’t seem to fully rescue the economy and an intellectual vice presidential nominee with Paul Ryan.

Wait, what?

Did I really just hear the Republicans boast about an intellectual ally? Isn’t this the same party that a decade ago ridiculed and distrusted the intellectual elites of the Democratic Party? Isn’t this the same party that once championed the ruggedly confident George W. Bush and the blissfully irreverent Sarah Palin, neither of whom disguised their suspicion of intellectualism but actually wore it like a badge? Isn’t this the party of those Texas rebels who want to ban critical thinking from school curricula? It can’t be. No political party can be that bipolar.

But, it is. No longer does the party’s golden boy wear cowboy hats or heroically brandish his shotgun to prove his American credentials. Instead, the new guy is often portrayed orating about the finer points of Medicare or crouched over his budget plan, “The Path to Prosperity.” Now that foreign wars and enemies have disappeared from the American consciousness, our leaders don’t need to flex their brawn because brains have become sexier.

But Ryan is not the Republicans’ type. They want someone who can fight the war, not conceptualize it. There are three reasons to question whether the new intellectual love affair is earnest and, more importantly, whether it’s even a good idea for the party.

First, is Ryan really an intellectual? Everyone seems to assume so. The press praises him as a “wonk hero.” “This guy is smart,” wrote Darrell West of the Brookings Institution. I don’t doubt he’s a smart guy. He’s articulate and has proven his knowledge of federal entitlement programs.

But the only basis for his “intellectualism” seems to be a single, albeit ambitious, budget proposal and the fact he has famously referenced Ayn Rand as his ideological inspiration. During 2005 Ryan said Rand’s works were required reading for his staff. The second reason does not make him an intellectual, someone who draws on a large and varied knowledge base, but an ideologue, someone who applies one narrow set of principles to a host of problems.

Second, if he is an intellectual, Ryan’s brand of intellectualism is nightmarish. His budget plan would, according to The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, “amount to the most radical revision of governing priorities in our lifetime.” For a plan that ultimately aims to drastically reduce government debt, Ryan’s plan to privatize social security would do nothing to accomplish that. His proposed cuts to Medicaid would force between 14 to 27 million low-income Americans, the majority of whom are disabled and elderly, to lose health insurance.

The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki said Ryan’s plan to reduce the role of government would dangerously “return the federal government to something like its nineteenth-century role.” If this is intellectualism, I don’t want to see it in the White House.

Third, because the Republicans’ tough-guy campaign has effectively cast Democrats as out-of-touch and spineless elitists before, why pick now to play the intellectual card against, of all people, Barack Obama? Obama is a credentialed intellectual, the author of two best-selling books, and a renowned idea man. Is this someone the Republicans’ want to engage in a battle of wits?

Ryan’s willingness to tackle the big questions about the role of government is valuable and as students we should appreciate the attempt to move past the petty image-bashing of the Bush years and into a more “serious” campaign. But considering the Republican tradition, I question the legitimacy and effectiveness of the move. On the other hand, we might be witnessing the birth of a new Republican Party.

Connor is a regular columnist for the Truman Index. This column was featured in the August 30, 2012 issue.