The best vice president ever

The best vice president ever
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In an earlier post on vice presidents, I tried my best to debunk several myths about the office, particularly this persistent media-spun fantasy that presidents pick their running mates primarily for reasons of ideological or geographic pandering. At the time, it seemed that there was very little historic precedent to justify such a widely-held trope, but following Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan this morning, there’s now at least one undeniable case study.

As a 41-year-old Representative who has held his current office (his first and only real job) since age 27, it’s very hard to argue that Ryan possesses the diverse lifetime of experience necessary for national leadership. Though very down on the idea of hackish career legislators, Ryan’s own much-celebrated identity as one of his party’s leading “policy wonks” is only a slightly different side of that same coin. He may very well be one of his party’s most talented seven-term members of the lower chamber, but whether or not that’s sufficient training for the top job is a question with a much less certain answer.

The biography of Congressman Ryan is short and mostly to the point; the New Yorker‘s  Ryan Lizza wrote an excellent summary in last month’s issue. Basically, he studied politics in school, worked briefly as aides for Senators Kasten and Kemp, and was quickly persuaded to seek one of his state’s open House seats in the 1998 federal election. He won, but the Lizza piece implies at least partial credit should go to the strength of the wealthy and powerful Ryan family name.

14 years later, Ryan still holds his seat, and has become something of a rising star in the GOP. Following the Republicans’ 2010 reconquest of the House, he was promoted to the impressive position of chairman of the chamber’s budget committee, from which he promptly authored a (in)famously conservative fiscal blueprint for the nation’s future known simply as “the Ryan Plan.” Red meat to Tea Party-types, without this high-profile manifesto for dramatic federal spending cuts and entitlement reform, Ryan would almost certainly not be sitting on the number two spot of a national ticket today.

To be sure, there is much to like about Paul Ryan. He is undeniably a thoughtful, conciliatory, and intelligent fellow, a fact which, ironically, provides rather pleasant contrast to many of his Tea Party fanboys. It’s likewise undeniable that the young man possesses considerable political bravery in his consistent, unapologetic willingness to tackle supposedly “third rail” budgetary issues like Medicare and Social Security, and his proposals for reform, imperfect though they may be, are still actual, on-paper proposals with real numbers and data that can be objectively debated and analyzed — a rare talent in Washington.

It also has to be noted that despite the common caricature of Ryan as some  manner of Ayn Rand-reading, Friedrich Hayek-quoting, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-government libertarian, the man’s actual conservative philosophies are distinctly his own, and far less unyielding than the popular cliches suggest. Reporters often make much of his outspoken devotion to Rand in his younger years, for instance, but less widely known is his explicit denunciation of her in more recent ones, blasting the simplistic way the Russian-born author “reduces human interactions down to mere contracts,” as well as her atheistic code of morality. As further evidence, like many conservatives in Congress, Ryan’s likewise come to concede that ample infrastructure spending, such as federal investments in schools, roads, and laboratories are a perfectly legitimate exercise of government power (particularly in his home district), making him quite far removed from an absolutist “Dr. No” Ron Paul-type.

Even the supposedly “extreme” reforms Ryan’s endorsed in relation to America’s three major entitlement programs have been considerably softer (in motive, at least) than critics have long implied. He’s never outright endorsed cutting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid payments, after all, but simply advocated redistributing a larger chunk of existing federal moneys to individuals or state governments in order to promote greater creativity and efficiency in spending. In response, liberal critics have had to argue why individuals or states will inevitably be victimized or bankrupted by their own naiveté and incompetence once placed in charge of this cash, but never have they had to fight against a man opposed to the fundamental justness of government aid to the poor, elderly, and infirm.

The point is not to praise Ryan because he’s equivocated in favour of a certain consensus vision of government on numerous occasions, but rather to applaud the fact that he’s a politician whose views have not been dogmatically ideological or ignorant in the way weak and dangerous leaders’ often are. On the contrary, he is actually a rare mix of unbending idealism in intent, but tempered caution in execution.

All this is a very different matter than whether Ryan’s qualified to sit in the Oval Office, however — an issue Governor Romney inadvertently emphasized when he awkwardly mis-introduced the Congressman as the “next president of the United States.” The fact remains that Ryan has no executive experience, foreign policy experience, private sector experience, or even leadership experience of any note; like the current president, his worth comes more from his ability to serve as a sort of charismatic cypher for a certain frustrated segment of the population.

For Romney to suggest such a man is ready to have his finger on the button undermines much of his own earlier campaigning, which, of course, emphasized the governor’s own lengthy and diverse career history in contrast to the meagre background of Mr. Obama. As was the case with Sarah Palin, however, a Ryan vice presidency dramatically curtails the degree to which the coming election can be openly fought over “qualifications” at all, since when both tickets feature thin resumes the issue is mutually neutralized through a kind of quiet truce.

The presidency is an important, powerful office, but I worry a string of embarrassingly underqualified candidates — intelligent or otherwise — have dramatically undermined the seriousness in which the office is both conceived and pursued. Once upon a time, conservative Republicans stood firm in defence of the idea that leadership had a certain objectively just and correct manifestation, and served guardians of the seriousness and quality of presidential (and vice presidential) eligibility as a result.

Paul Ryan may have won much acclaim for his unshakable defense of certain conservative economic philosophies, but his nomination for the veepstakes represents his party’s sad abandonment of another, equally important principle.


  1. @SideshowJon36

    No life experience outside politics and policy? Sorta like the current Prez and VP?

    Isn't the criticism of Romney that he has had private sector experience, and therefore had to lay people off on occasion?

  2. rmjones13

    Obama actually worked with a couple different non-profit groups before going into politics, though I don't know about Biden.

  3. @SideshowJon36

    Obama worked with ACORN and other political/policy advocates. He also served as a Constitutional Law lecturer for a couple years, which arguably borders on a real job.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    By "real job" think people mean something that isn't non-profit/public sector. Like they are subjected to supply and demand. And not just cash from the government because of some political/quasi-political pressure. Biden worked for the gov't his entire life. Obama about the same. So yah the Romney/Ryan ticket is full of both public, non-profit and private experience.

  5. Jake_Ackers

    Actually his dad died when he was young so he had to work early. He even worked odd jobs while working as a staffer in Congress. In addition to the fact he did work real jobs before politics.

  6. @SideshowJon36

    Also, brace for a lot of angry Ron Paul comments since you dared call Ryan a libertarian

  7. vonPeterhof

    Argh! Rabble rabble rabble Ron Paul 2012!

    Ahem, well, JJ did give a more nuanced characterization of Ryan's political views in the article below, so it's all good. Let's see how many of my fellow libertarians (BTW I'm not much of a Ron Paul guy anyway) fail to RTFA.

  8. Daniel

    Ron Paul fan here. Quick bit o' info: Not all of us libertarians are dogmatically bound to XYX candidate. While I'm a big fan of Paul for sticking to his guns, I also recognize that libertarianism isn't a rigid philosophy. I'm not an orthodox libertarian myself, and while I don't see eye to eye with Paul Ryan on everything, I realize that he's thought through what he believes.

    To make things ironic, I'll give you a thumbs up.

  9. @jordanjtc

    A 1.5 term Senator is fit to be President, but a 7 term Congressman is to green to be VP? Huh?

    Also, I keep seeing bloggers and media types hopping aboard this "WHAT? Ryan's career is nothing like Mitt's." There's no problem there, though. VP picks almost always complement presidential ones. Bush/Cheney for starters, or even Obama/Biden if we're still keeping to recent examples.

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Right. Obama was a Senator for a year or so before he ran for the Presidency. And Ryan doesn't have experience? The same was said about Palin. It doesn't make sense. It's pure cartoon logic. What does a Republican need to be? A Five Star General? A Former President? How about we get Zombie Reagan to run maybe that's enough experience. Heck, if George Washington or even FDR was a Republican they would say he didn't have enough experience. I wonder if Wilson argued that Teddy Roosevelt never had enough experience.

  11. @anangbhai

    Also the case that Romney as a CEO knows a rising star when he sees one. Ryan is the Robin to Romney's Bruce Wayne. The point of being VP is by definition a way to groom oneself for the highest office, though it has rarely worked out that way in practice. Had Romney chose a governor, two executive personalities would have clashed and not collaborated, which is why senators or congressmen make the best veeps.

  12. rmjones13

    Honestly, I feel this is likely going to be harmful to the campaign. Paul Ryan is NOT going to bring in most Independent voters, and in fact will alienate many Indepent Voting women- if not some conservative women. He wishes to outlaw many common forms of birth control, and voted against the Lilly Ledbetter act which was designed to make it easier for women to challenge and prosecute cases of unequal pay. Plus, he is another white, rich, straight male in a campaign that is full of 'em. (Not that any of those traits are bad, just that in America it's becoming a running joke on how the republican party is full of 'em, and that they all seem to be more concerned with their rich white friends then with anyone else. Obama, for all his faults, has actually done a great deal for different minority groups, and doing more for Native American rights in his term than any other president so far.)

    And that isn't even getting into what else he has voted against… or what he has wanted to add (such as a amendment in the constitution banning same-sex marriage).

    My friends who might not have voted in the election otherwise because they are frustrated with Obama are now planning to because between Romney (and holy frick all his foreign diplomacy fumbles.) and Ryan? They are terrified that we are going to slide back ten to thirty years on almost every civil right's issue. They might be overreacting, but I don't really blame 'em.

  13. Jake_Ackers

    Obama has done a lot for minorities? Do you not listen to the criticizing yelled at Obama by the black community. In fact due to the economy minorities are worst off under this President than any other in a long time. Unless you are referring to welfare. He has given a lot of that.

    On the civil rights point. Obama is no better, look at how much he has gone after religious rights. It's call depends how the politics are phrased. "War on Women Rights!" Nobody is against women (well most people aren't) just because you dislike abortion doesn't mean you hate women.

    I just find it silly that people say they won't vote for one side because of specific reason and yet the side they are voting for does the exact samething.

  14. rmjones13

    I meant in laws actually passed. Of course, I read a lot of non-american newspapers and newspapers written by minority publishers, so maybe it's that I tend to look at it that way. I'm not saying whether or not his stuff has been particularly effective in some areas, but to say that he has done nothing or has done worse than others is ridiculous.

    And how the heck has he 'gone after religious rights'? Sorry, I don't think it is ok for a insurance company to not provide coverage for something that is basic to health. I require birth control not because I am gettin' jiggy with it (perpetual virgin here), but because I have a hormone imbalance which causes painful boils. There are many medical reasons to have birth control prescribed to you. It's ridiculous that viagra is covered when birth control isn't in many cases.

    And if you don't think there is a cultural narrative that hurts women, you really haven't been paying attention to anything. (Not going to get into long discussions about this here, but please look up articles about women in science and how difficult it is to break into the field for them, into the slants in advertising, and into Rape Culture. There is a hell of a lot written about that stuff that would teach you something.)

    And the reason why I am voting for Obama is simple. Becuase how blatant Romney and Ryan are about their bigotry is astounding to me, and even if I feel Obama is ineffective (which I do), he at least isn't super-actively and proud harmful to the civil rights of gays, minorities, and women. Of course, once again, I actually read up on the news and what bills are passing rather than listening to random statistics with no direct causes. And I find it interesting you can't actually dispute the bills and positions I actually talked about.

  15. Jake_Ackers

    I agree with your birth control position but then in your case it's not birth control. It's medicine, which must be covered. My religious rights point was that Obama wanted religious groups to cover abortion/birth control and not the insurance companies. He changed his position later to make it the insurance companies that do.

    My main point with the Women example was that its the rhetoric in politics. Is there an assault on women? Yah but when pro-choice politicians use these phrases like "War on Women" when referring to all pro-life politicians. Not every pro-lifer hates women. So it's misleading to use the phrase and all it does is inflame. The right does the same thing with other issues, like "oh these left wing politicians hate American!" You don't get into politics because you hate America.

    Therefore, I find it dumb when people say they are not voting for someone just because of a single thing when the other side does it too. You seem to base it more on laws and political positions in addition to how they present themselves. That is perfectly fine. I was just referring to people in general, that going around complaining about tactics and w/e else. Like "oh Republicans are mean" or "Democrats lie" it's not like both sides don't do it. Voting based on position, laws, and presentation (if that's the right word) is okay, it's voting JUST based on perception that I find makes no sense when people do it.

    Oh and I didn't comment on the bills and postions part because I largely agree with you on that. For example, the Lilly Ledbetter I think didn't go far enough. My position on birth control is: Is it being used as medicine? Then it's medicine not birth control, so it must be covered. Companies shouldn't be picking and choosing what my medicine is, that's a doctor's job.

  16. Jake_Ackers

    Oh and on the white rich straight male thing. Seriously? So Dems run one black guy and it changes the fact every other Dem was a white male on the ticket (except that one time with a white female). And Reps run one woman and it's ignored? Biden and Ryan have been just like every other VP pick. Senseable, knowledgeable and reinforces the President. VP pick is your first choice as a potential President. Flashy isn't always a good choice.

  17. rmjones13

    Wow, you totally missed my point on it.

    I never said I think Dems are totally awesome about diversity. Heck no. They suck only marginally less about it then Republicans do, which isn't saying much. But it's (once again) the sheer amount of pride the Republican party (in general) seems to have in being white and rich right now. Or can you find a way to excuse a party that doesn't (as a whole) even blink when one of their well known representatives call spanish "the language of the ghetto".

    Oh, I'm moderate and independent btw.

  18. rmjones13

    I would also like to say I was hoping to see Republicans get their stuff together this election to see hopefully an option that I could take. I like having to debate with myself on who I would vote for. But the way that Romney and Ryan handle themselves is so full of privilege with a lack of understanding for the common man that… urgh. At least Obama can fake it.

  19. Jake_Ackers

    Fair enough. But I think a lot of it is perception especially since Gingrich ran up Romney with the vulture capitalism argument. I don't think anyone gets in politics and doesn't care about people. But I do understand your point. I think Romney could combat it with some "fire in the belly." Romney and Ryan just have had to be so proper all their lives it seems. Romney the son of a Governor and businessman. Ryan a kid to had to grow up too soon and a politician.

  20. confessionsofafatman

    You are grossly misrepresenting the Ryan budget. He doesn't merely hand over the same chunk of money to the states, he proposes putting all non social security and medicare/medicaid spending at 3.75% of GDP. Since DoD is currently at 4% of GPD alone (and he favors increased military spending), he would literally have to end all functions of government…and still not get to his goal.

    Furthermore, his "voucher" reforms for Medicare do represent a real cut, because they are indexed for inflation, not health care inflation, which means he suggests reforming entitlements…by cutting them. While you may agree or disagree with this approach, the idea that he is merely "making them more efficient" is just nonsense.

    His proposals for Medicaid are even more blunt. He turns Medicaid into specific block grant chunks of money, instead of specific health care commitments, in effect slashing funding. Again, if you agree with this, fine, but do not, do not, try to feed us this nonsense that it doesn't represent a real cut. It does.

    Also, how can you talk about his entitlement reform without even bothering to mention that he sets back his quest for deficit reduction by massively slashing taxes for the rich? If he was at all serious about the deficit, that'd be one thing—but cutting spending for the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the rich is huge, and not something to ignore.

    Come on, JJ, you can do better than that. Read the numbers.

  21. Jake_Ackers

    I hear that argument about cutting services for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich. Doesn't make sense because he isn't suggesting cutting the payroll tax which pay for those services. Plus its Obama with Obamacare who is raising the taxes on the poor and middle class. There is the problem with gov't shuffling money around because it borrows from one program to pay another but that is a general problem with too much gov't spending.

  22. @Cristiona

    Fair enough, now let's compare the Ryan plan to the Senate budget.

    Oh wait…

  23. Virgil

    I'm not sure I agree with the central contention: namely that grooming for the Presidency requires a lengthy resume, and further that Republicans have defended this principle in the past.

    Ryan has been in the House of Representatives since 1999, thereby giving him 13 years in the house. Dwight Eisenhower picked Nixon, who had been in the House for 3 years and the Senate for 3.

  24. SparcVark

    I'd agree. Gerald Ford was made VP after a long term in the House without executive experience (if you exclude his Navy career). Some Republican VP candidates have had a lot of executive experience (Nelson Rockefeller, Dick Cheney), others not so much. I don't see any kind of Republican principle being violated here.

  25. Jake_Ackers

    Anyone who attacks Ryan for not having enough experience is a complete tool. Obama has no experience what so ever except running for office.

  26. drs

    The man who can’t prove he’s paid taxes has picked a man who wants to officially zero out his taxes.

    “Voucher reform” of Medicare is killing Medicare. The individual health insurance market does not work — especially for sick and old people!

    And budgeting is not a partial-credit process. “I will balance the budget via $700 billion a year in closing unspecified loopholes” is not a respectable policy position.

  27. Jake_Ackers

    It called a simpler tax code. Almost $1 Trillion goes uncollected because the IRS just doesn't go after it. And it is suppose to be paid anyway. Note this is a year. Add in the fact what companies like Google and GE do and you will have a lot more people paying into the system if it is a simple code.

  28. Kadin

    If his proposed tax plan and closing of loopholes is so simple, it shouldn't be hard to explain the details.

    Watch this: "I have a plan to raise an extra quintillion dollars per year, ensure the stability of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and bring down unemployment. I'm not going to tell you what the plan is, but it's a good one." Having said that, I am now as Serious and Grown-Up a politician as Paul Ryan.

  29. truteal

    He should have chosen Rubio

  30. Jake_Ackers

    Great VP pick but not the exciting bump. After Palin everyone was expecting similar choices but the truth is Ryan is a great pick because he is a complete VP choice. Paul Ryan is a great choice if you are in office, but is there a wow factor? Nope, but has there ever been one with most VP picks?

    On a side note: A Black guy, a Mormon, and two Catholics work into a bar…

  31. Kadin

    This is really a very good caricature.

  32. JonasB

    Ryan seems like a good option to me. He may not be presidential material, but I'm not so sure that's an important quality for a VP pick. With John McCain, succession was a legitimate concern since he was almost 80 years old and running for one of the most stressful jobs in the world, but for Romney I wouldn't put as much emphasis on it.

  33. Jane Doe

    If you dig a bit more, I think you'll find that Paul Ryan actually -is- quite the Randian nightmare of a candidate, much as one might want to believe that the public perception is an exaggeration. Though that's often the case, this is one case where there is hard proof of his dedication to hopeless libertarian principles:

    That video is only 3 years old, and Paul Ryan talks about how Ayn Rand understood the true "morality" of capitalism, as well as how the thinking in "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead" are something the USA needs.

  34. Guest

    The reality is that no-one is ever qualified to be President – even ex-presidents.
    Likewise, a VP pick can't be qualified for the job of President – but any old bump on a log is already qualified to be VP. It is, after all, the most useless job in the universe.

  35. GolfballDM

    @Guest: The people most qualified for the job of POTUS are the ones that don't want it, the ones that want it are the least qualified.

    Stop voting for the lesser evil!

    Cthulhu/Nyarlathotep 2012! The stars are right!

  36. Some Manner

    Douglas Adams is always related.

    "The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
    To summarize: it is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem."

  37. Drew

    " He is undeniably a thoughtful, conciliatory, and intelligent fellow, a fact which, ironically, provides rather pleasant contrast to many of his Tea Party fanboys."

    I absolutely deny that. He is not thoughtful — in fact, in many ways, he is thoughtless — he is not conciliatory in the slightest (for example, there's no room for increased revenues in his "plan"), and his intelligence goes unproven.

    What he is, however, is an almost guaranteed loss of Florida, and Wisconsin doesn't make up for that. So I, personally, am fine with him being picked; he makes the election of Mitt Romney that much less likely.

  38. Guest

    Does anyone else think that Paul Ryan looks a lot like that teacher out of Glee – Matthew Morrison?