It just boggles the mind to imagine how Paul Ryan can stand up there and lash Barack Obama for abandoning Bowles-Simpson when he did exactly that himself. Or for taking $716 billion out of Medicare that Ryan’s own budget also removes from Medicare. Or try to blame him for the closing of a GM plant that actually closed while George W. Bush was president. Those three lies are just the beginning of a cavalcade that followed. I can’t in clear conscience call such a speech “good” or “effective.” But I will acknowledge that Ryan can spin the goods like nobody’s business, and that his presence on the stage Wednesday night and on the ticket going forward does put new pressure on the Democrats, because Republicans have never really fought on quite this terrain in quite this way.
For many decades, the parties basically sort of ceded certain matters to each other. Democrats argued with Republicans about defense spending, for example; but with a few exceptions they rarely tried to say that they were the people you should really trust on defense. They knew they’d lose that argument, and they changed the subject. Republicans did the same on many social issues, or the idea of compassion. They knew they couldn’t compete. Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich changed this a little. They went around saying that their plans for poor people were superior. No one really bought it, but it did become a standard GOP talking point. Ryan is Kemp on steroids. (It was no accident that he invoked Kemp tonight). No Republican has ever tried to take it to Democrats on the issues they’ve owned for, in the case of Medicare, nearly 50 years.
Analysis of the fact that Ryan can lie the way he does requires the skills of a psychologist. All I can say is that we’re in new territory—a Republican trying to own a Democratic issue, and doing so on the basis of a couple of lies so blatant that he’s practically saying to the Democrats and the media: “Fuck you, come and get me. You can’t touch me.”
Ryan is glib and smooth and has a certain charm. He delivers one-liners very well. He really knows how to package, and where to go and where not to go. He talked a lot about spending, but he didn’t talk much about taxes, because he knows that he can’t really defend his position on taxes, which is slash them for the rich, so don’t even open that door. Open only the doors that lead to free shots at Obama. Many of those too are lies. He’s done far more to add to the debt than Obama has—voting for Bush’s tax cuts and wars and Medicare expansion as a congressman. This is true. But he can make it sound as if no sane person could possibly believe it.
I don’t know how well Ryan came across in this speech with undecided voters, if they watched. My guess would be very well indeed with men, rather less well but still respectably with women. It was mostly a speech for the hall, the red-meaters, but that bit toward the end, about the faded Obama posters in the kids’ bedrooms, and where he looked right into the camera and said, “If you’re feeling left out or passed by, you have not failed, your leaders have failed you,” was aimed at swing voters and probably reached them. And I’m sure that to old people who don’t know any better, he looks like a nice young man.
So the Democrats have to raise their game. They’ve never had to encounter this kind of buttery demagoguery before. Their campaign is going to have to be almost as much against Ryan as against Romney. (Does anyone think Romney’s speech is going to be more effective to the intended audience? I’d be awfully surprised if it is.) They have to rebut his lies, and they have to do it without sounding bitter or afraid or superior or haughty. That’s not easy to do. But it’s the challenge of this campaign. If they can’t win the Ryan war, they’re done.