Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Regrettable Necessity of Paul Ryan

The unfortunate but mostly true adage in politics is if you're explaining, you're losing. Paul Ryan is an explainer. And it looks like we might need one. In this respect (-among others), Paul Ryan is an excellent choice for Vice President.

I agree in part with Nate Silver's NYT analysis insofar as I think Romney is probably down and Mitt knows it. Paul Ryan does represent a shake-up, but this is as far as I agree with Silver. The NYT analysis suffers from two major flaws.

Firstly, the perception of Paul Ryan's ideology is more extreme than his actual ideological bent. I think Nick Gillespie is too harsh on Ryan, but I think any fiscal realist should share Gillespie's hope that the Ryan budget's uncomfortably slow turnaround from massive deficit spending “would become the ceiling of acceptable discourse”. As I've said before, the Ryan plan is pretty much the minimum necessary magnitude of change in order to avoid sovereign default. (I'd like to think we all agree sovereign default is a bad thing.)

Secondly, Silver pays homage to “Politics 101”. By Politics 101, Silver is referring to the “spatial” median voter model of rational ideological preferences, which for about 3 years or so I've argued is incomplete at best and hokum at worst. It is my sincerest hope that in choosing Ryan, Team Romney has shed itself of the intellectual dead weight of Politics 101.

However, as I mentioned, what they're trying to do with Ryan is explain. That's the dangerous move, not Ryan's supposed ideology or the public's reaction to it. Explaining requires a lot of things. It requires money, effort, and time, with time being the most precious commodity.

The necessity of picking an explainer-in-chief is a direct result of the long-term failure of conservatives to engage the public on basic economics. With all that Obama has done wrong –which is to say nearly everything– how is it possible that Romney isn't beating him by twenty points? What the hell is wrong with people? With Ryan on the ticket, some conservatives are now calling the election “a referendum on math”. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't get math. Younger voters, those who have lost the most under Obama and stand to gain the most with a Ryan-style plan, prefer Obama two to one, apparently due to some “coolness” factor.

The only solution to this problem is a prolonged, remedial education of the public. Consider an ad like this:

How much of the idiotic birth control debate could have been diffused if someone put funny, common-sense ads in primetime TV saying, “Democrats spend all their time demanding taxpayers cover the cost of birth control for all women when we already provide it for those who can’t afford it and it’s available to everyone for $9 a month. So why the focus on this? Because they haven’t passed a budget in more than 1,000 days? Because their economic policies have failed? Because gas prices and unemployment are through the roof?”

Yes, that message is conveyed by talking heads most people don’t watch, in op-eds most people don’t read and in “viral videos” no one sees. But you won’t find it on the TV programs most people watch. Why? Because it costs money.

Indeed, as Derek Hunter explored in hisTownhall piece a few months ago, the conservative organizations you would think might be interested in this sort of thing seem to exist mostly to self-perpetuate and preach to the choir. The party organizations, somewhat naturally, exist to fight elections, and by necessity get drawn into short-term tactical politics, and don't have any inclination to engage in multi-cycle party building.  Heck, nobody even bothered to tell people which party controlled Congress in 2008.  A woefully uninformed and misinformed electorate can not be expected to make reasonable decisions.  Conservative positions lose ground with almost every political cycle, rarely to be recovered, and then only partly.

Paul Ryan might be the best possible person to do the explaining. He's shown incredible skill at that throughout his career. But the need for Romney to engage in the strategy of educating an electorate in about three months is a sad commentary about the state of the conservative movement.