Paul Ryan delivered a damn good speech last night.
You could argue with and dispute many of the points that he made, but that’s the thing about a speech: You don’t get to argue with it while it’s being delivered. A speech of that sort creates a protected reality, giving the speaker an unchallenged, extended moment in which to define himself, his party and his world. Ryan used that moment well.
(The best example of that phenomenon may have been Ryan’s predecessor, Sarah Palin, who in the same speech four years earlier created an attractive image of herself and her world that crumbled the moment she left the stage.)
Ryan, a creature of Washington for all of his adult life, knows his business and his role. As the enthusiastic response of his fellow Republicans demonstrated, last night he made their world his world, succeeding in linking speaker and audience in common outlook and purpose. The larger, more difficult question is whether he made a similar connection with millions of Americans watching from home.
In many ways he probably did. When he spoke of a tough economy — “23 million people, unemployed or underemployed. Nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty. Millions of young Americans have graduated from college during the Obama presidency, ready to use their gifts and get moving in life. Half of them can’t find the work they studied for, or any work at all” — it was an America that everybody in the convention hall and in living rooms recognized.
When he warned of our deepening national debt, and the fear that our children would live more cramped and difficult lives than we have, he echoed fears felt by any American who is paying attention to public life.
But the next morning, once the music has died, the applause has disappeared and the janitors are sweeping the floor of the previous night’s discards, things come into focus a bit more sharply.
For example, it was interesting to watch Ryan bewail the fact that this country’s credit rating had been downgraded, failing to mention that it was downgraded because he and his fellow Republicans conspired to create an artificial and completely unnecessary crisis over the debt ceiling. It went oddly unmentioned.
Ryan also noted that Obama had created a bipartisan debt commission whose report had come to nothing, yet somehow the congressman neglected to point out his own prominent role in its demise. He himself, as a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission, voted against accepting its recommendations and by doing so he made sure the report went nowhere.
Likewise, when Ryan accused Obama of “raiding” Medicare of $716 billion, he failed to note that in his House budget that made him famous, he too diverted $716 billion from Medicare. Instead of using it to extend health care to millions of uninsured Americans, he used it to finance more tax cuts for the wealthy. A difference in prioirities, I suppose.
Finally, in a speech that stressed responsibility and tough decisions, Ryan put the nation’s burgeoning debt entirely on the shoulders of one man.
“Yet by his own decisions, President Obama has added more debt than any other president before him, and more than all the troubled governments of Europe combined,” Ryan charged. “One president, one term, $5 trillion in new debt.”
Surely the chairman of the House Budget Committee, where all spending bills originate, must have played some tiny role in that process, did he not? Surely a politician committed to truth-telling on tough topics would not ignore the role that he and his own party played — budget-busting tax cuts that never produced promised economic growth; two wars, one necessary but badly led, the other a tragic misadventure, and both of them hugely expensive and unfunded; and an economic crisis unmatched in 80 years, touched off by a steady deregulation of Wall Street that he and his fellow Republicans insist even now must be deregulated even further.
Surely these too played a role, did they not?
And if nothing is being done in Washington, it is useful to ask whether a party that scorns compromise, that ejects from its membership any who dare question its holy agenda, and that pursues an extremist economic platform to the exclusion of all else just might, perhaps, maybe bear some responsibility for that state of affairs?
These are the kind of “details” that can be swept away, momentarily, in the emotion of a good speech well-delivered. But they do not go away forever. The next morning — this morning — they still stare all of us in the face.
– Jay Bookman