When someone says a public figure is a "good politician," what they usually mean is that the person is able to convince a given audience–pundits, journalists, the public–to believe something about them.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan is a good politician.
For years, he was able to convince elite media that he was a "budget wonk" (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/14/12). He knew more about the way the government spent money than most of his colleagues, and he had bold ideas about how to balance the budget and reduce the debt
The truth is that the math never really added up, and it wasn't clear he had any special knowledge of government spending (FAIR Blog, 8/20/12). What was clear was that Ryan's budgets would inflict pain, mostly on poor people, in order to bring tax relief to wealthy people. And they wouldn't really balance out anytime soon.
Nowadays, Ryan is on a new mission. To hear him–and the coverage he attracts (FAIR Blog, 11/20/13)–tell it, he wants to discover and promote new ways of helping poor people, since the old ways are (in his view) not working. The best way to make this case is to be seen near poor people, to speak about how you see fighting poverty as an important mission, and to hope that very little attention is paid to the actual policies you have pursued.
Ryan got all of that in a massive Buzzfeed report by McKay Coppins (4/28/14) headlined "Paul Ryan's Inner City Education." Ryan is on the scene at a Baptist church in Indianapolis to listen to "a combination of Bible verses and counseling for the neighborhood's underachieving men." Coppins cheers Ryan's "immersion into a world that few in the D.C. political class dare to visit," and writes that this
political transformation–from right-wing warrior-wonk crusading against the welfare state, to bleeding-heart conservative consumed with a mission to the poor–is one of the most peculiar, and potentially consequential, stories in politics today.
Indeed, Ryan "has charged headfirst into the war on poverty without a helmet; zealously and clumsily fighting for a segment of the American public that his party hasn't reached" in years. He "is doing something rather unprecedented for a Republican: He is spending unchoreographed time with actual poor people. He is exposing himself to the complexities of low-income life that don’t fit in the 30-second spot, the outlay spreadsheet, or the stump speech applause line."
Well, that all sounds great. So what's the problem? Turns out, sadly, that some people don't like Paul Ryan. Coppins writes that he
is also a deeply polarizing figure in Washington and beyond, a fact that has largely filtered the responses to his newfound passion for the poor into two categories: swoons and sneers.
So Paul Ryan is doing something remarkably admirable, which makes his critics "sneer"–or, as Coppins puts it later, "the audacity of his mission has driven some of his detractors nuts." One such critic, New York's Jonathan Chait, is "rabid…the most prolific soldier in an army of liberal political writers" who have made Ryan "a natural villian in their writing" and have "relentless prosecuted him."
In such a lengthy piece about Ryan, readers only get passing references to what critics have to say about Ryan's actual policy record. It is evidently more important to characterize the attacks on Ryan as being unusually harsh. For instance, Ryan caused a minor controversy when he spoke about the problem of the "culture in our inner cities…generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of the culture of work." Afterwards, Buzzfeed explains, the "liberal punditocracy pounced," and that wasn't all: "Serious political reporters began calling Ryan's office to ask if the congressman 'really hates black people,' according to one aide."
That sounds a bit far-fetched, but an anonymous aide can say what they want. It all adds up to a portrait of an earnest guy trying to do the right thing who sometimes uses the wrong words, and the obsessive critics who won't cut him a break.
Coppins spends little time conveying the criticism of Ryan's budget proposals, but he does offer him some support:
If his rhetoric lacks poetry, his arguments against the current state-centric approach to aiding the poor is compelling. Since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "war on poverty," the US government has spent an estimated $13 trillion on federal programs that have resulted, 50 years later, in the highest deep poverty rate on record.
That jumped out at rabid Ryan critic Jonathan Chait (New York, 4/28/14), who argues it is deeply deceptive:
This statistic is one of the very few fact-based policy assertions in Coppins' story. It is wildly misleading. Ryan is using a measure of poverty that excludes a lot of the subsidies government gives to the poor. He’s saying, in other words, that giving poor people money doesn’t make them less poor, if we disregard the money government gives them. If we count such subsidies, then the War on Poverty has in fact reduced deep poverty substantially.
Coppins writes that Ryan will present a poverty report at the end of this month,
and sometime this summer he plans to release a package of conservative anti-poverty proposals that will be trumpeted as the culmination of his work with the poor. His admirers will no doubt use the occasion to celebrate him as a forward-thinking Republican visionary. He will make the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows. Political reporters will write stories about his rising stock in the 2016 campaign.
This piece will serve those efforts nicely.