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Against “Authenticity”: Zombie-Eyed Granny Starving Edition

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Jon Chait’s dissection of Paul Ryan is essential reading. Before getting to the heart of the article, there’s another point I’d like to emphasize. You remember James Stewart — using the same legendary reporting skills that caused him to accuse Hillary Clinton of committing a felony based on a tax form he failed to turn over — praising Ryan for being open to increased capital gains taxes when in fact Ryan favors eliminating them altogether? Well, Chait talked to him, and the results are pure (if depressing) gold:

After Obama assailed Ryan’s budget, Stewart wrote a second column insisting that Ryan’s plans were just the sort of goals liberals shared. He quoted Ryan as writing, in his manifesto, “The social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens.” Stewart is flabbergasted that Democrats could be so partisan as to attack a figure who believes something so uncontroversial. “Does anyone,” Stewart wrote in his follow-up, “Democrat or Republican, seriously disagree?”

The disagreement, I suggested to Stewart, is that Ryan believes the social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens by spending too much money on them. As Ryan has said, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”—which is to say, plying the poor with such inducements as food stamps and health insurance for their children has sapped their desire to achieve, a problem Ryan proposes to solve by targeting them for the lion’s share of deficit reduction. Stewart waves away the distinction. “I was pointing out that, at least rhetorically, you can find some common ground,” he says. Stewart, explaining his evaluation of Ryan to me, repeatedly cited the missing details in his plan as a hopeful sign of Ryan’s accommodating aims. “He seems very straightforward,” he tells me. “He doesn’t seem cunning. He seems very genuine.”

Stewart’s responses in defense of Ryan are an object lesson in why 99.9% of theater critic analysis of politicians is useless. First of all, once a reporter has a narrative of authenticity or genuineness about a political figure, anything can be neatly wedged in to fit. Including, amazingly enough, citing Ryan’s failure to take responsibility for the specific spending cuts his broader policy framework would require on behalf of his honesty and moderation.

But, more importantly, even when it’s less implausible or tautological the problem with this kind of evaluation is that it’s worthless on its face. As Chait says, looked at from the right angle Ryan’s assertions that he doesn’t believe the safety net is working for the poor are perfectly “genuine” — he thinks it’s not working and therefore we should pretty much eliminate it at the federal level. But this “rhetorical overlap” is only relevant to claims that he’s a moderate fiscal conservative who liberals can work with if there’s any substantive overlap with people who believe that the United States’ already tattered safety net should be strengthened — which there isn’t. But as I’ll also discuss this week with respect to Robert Caro, there’s a certain kind of centrist or even liberal journalist who’s always a sucker for arch-reactionary politics presented in the form of superficially genteel personalities.

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