By Roger Bybee
When Republican leaders chose Representative Paul Ryan to give the response to President Obama's State of the Union speech, they bestowed their blessing on this fast-rising star from Wisconsin's First District.
His is the boyishly handsome face and cheery demeanor of free market fundamentalism -- a philosophy that has devastated his own district with particularly acute suffering. And now, as the new chair of the House Budget Committee, Ryan promises more devastation for the rest of the nation.
"Paul Ryan is a phony and a disaster," says John Dohner, president of Local 95 of the United Auto Workers in Janesville, Ryan's hometown. "The people I know aren't fooled by his smile or surprised by his votes. They see him as a slickster, not a friend."
But a huge majority of voters in Ryan's district seem to be fooled, or at least fail to see any credible alternative. They keep sending him back to Washington. Last fall, Ryan's opponents were frustrated yet again as he skated to victory with 68 percent of the vote over barely funded -- and thus barely visible -- Democrat John Heckenlively. Ryan pulled this off even though on Election Day, cities in his district had jobless rates between 10.3 percent and 13.4 percent.
Despite the hardship in his district, Ryan voted against extending unemployment benefits in November on the pretext that it would add more than "one dime to the deficit."
"This is something that really got talked about at union meetings," says Dohner.
Ryan then turned around and voted for the benefits when they were coupled with an extension of the Bush tax cuts, which would add seven trillion dimes to the deficit.
Ryan is a devotee of Ayn Rand, the literary icon of pure and ruthless free market policies. He has even made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his staff.
He accuses President Obama of favoring a "European-style welfare state" and, after the election, he all but called those who receive unemployment benefits lazy. "We have an incentive-based system where people want to get up and make the most of their lives, for themselves and their kids," he stated. "We don't want to turn this safety net into a hammock that ends up lulling people in their lives into dependency and complacency. That's the big debate we're having right now."
On the day of the House vote on Obama's stimulus bill, Ryan said: "This is not a crisis we can spend and borrow our way out of -- that is how we got here in the first place. Yet this is precisely the path the majority chose today. We're repeating the mistakes of a flawed economic doctrine that deepened our Depression in the 1930s."
He thus gives a peculiar interpretation to the economic events of the 1930s.
Almost all economists and historians credit Roosevelt for lowering unemployment from about 25 percent to just under 10 percent through public spending. But Ryan is all about tax cuts and deficit reduction, entirely ignoring the central problem of weak consumer buying power -- brought on by high unemployment and widespread wage-cutting -- that has been worsening the recession. As he said in his response to the State of the Union, "Spending cuts have to come first."
Sometimes he sounds like Ronald Reagan, circa 1965, as when the Wisconsin legislator denounced Social Security and Medicare as part of a "collectivist system."
In his much-ballyhooed "Road map for America," touted as a cure for excessive spending, Ryan advocates partial privatization of Social Security and turning Medicaid and Medicare into voucher programs with limited benefits. He also would give more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, including an elimination of all taxes on corporate profits, capital gains, and dividends.
UAW member Diane Hrovaiten, who was among 3,800 workers who lost their jobs when the Delphi auto-parts plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, relocated work to Mexico, is not fond of Ryan's plan. "Ryan's 'Road map' protects the fortunes of the rich," she says, "but for the rest of us, it's an eight-lane expressway to destruction."
Ryan, forty, was born and raised in Janesville before graduating from Miami University of Ohio. He spent time as an aide to rightists such as Senators Robert Kasten of Wisconsin and Sam Brownback of Kansas and then learned valuable skills from the late Representative Jack Kemp of New York, whose populist style enabled him to win race after race in blue collar Buffalo.
Ryan's personal charm has won over a large portion of First District voters. Joe Knilans, a former member of UAW Local 95 just elected to the state legislature as a Republican, cites Ryan's common touch.
"With the voters in Janesville, you see him at a store or at a playground with his kids, you can walk right up and talk to him even if you disagree with him," says Knilans. "When I watch him interact from afar, he treats everyone like a neighbor."
While voting against the district's most urgent needs, Ryan remains a smiling, respectful presence as he continues to meet with senior citizens groups and even unions who fiercely oppose his policies.
"For whatever reason, Ryan is courteous and thoughtful," says Chris Townsend, the national political director of the distinctly left-of-center United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers. "Just wrong on most things."
At a Martin Luther King holiday event in Kenosha I attended this year, Ryan spoke briefly and smoothly, cognizant of his audience of African Americans, liberals, and a scattering of labor folks. He bonded easily, referring to the deep impression that reading Letter from a Birmingham Jail left on him as a high school student. He praised the work of community activists being honored, saying that they were, in King's words, making a "down payment on the promissory note" America had given to African Americans.
Following his remarks, Ryan politely declined to answer any of my questions, although there was an interlude where he was waiting for photographs to be set up. He referred me to an aide -- I responded that I had already spoken to his staff -- and then claimed that he was late for his next engagement.
Ryan has seduced much of the mainstream media corps, which frequently praises him for his "intellectual audacity" and portrays him as "the thinker." The Washington Post labeled him the "GOP's leading intellectual in Congress."
Even President Obama has praised Ryan's anti-deficit plan as "a serious proposal" and singled out Ryan as "someone who is absolutely sincere about wanting to reduce the deficit."
Ryan didn't return the favor. "I do believe President Obama does believe more in economic redistribution," he told Fox TV. "He's clearly a class warfare guy."
But the class that's winning the war in his district is not made up of working people.
The district is pockmarked with ghostly factories from one end to the other.
Just before Christmas of 2008, General Motors closed its gigantic assembly plant in Janesville, ending the jobs of 2,800 GM workers and those of about 3,000 in supplier plants.
Last fall, Chrysler -- with the help of a taxpayer bailout -- relocated 850 engine jobs from Kenosha to its new plant in Saltillo, Mexico.
The three major industrial counties in Ryan's district have endured devastating manufacturing job losses since 2000, with Kenosha County losing 30 percent, Racine County 33 percent, and Rock County an astonishing 54 percent.
With so many First District jobs relocated by U.S. firms to low-wage nations, Ryan felt obligated to run a TV ad in 2008 expressing his opposition to the export of jobs.
"But Ryan consistently supported free trade agreements which send our jobs overseas," notes Andy Gussert, the director of the Citizens Trade Campaign. "There was a total disconnect between his ads and his record."
The wave of plant closings and relocations has created dangerous ripples, including a tripling of home foreclosures since 2000. Health care needs have also exploded as thousands of families saw their coverage evaporate with a layoff or an employer decision to terminate health coverage. "Over the past two years, we've seen a 77 percent increase in the number of patients," reports Traci Rogers, executive director of the HealthNet free clinic in Ryan's district.
Ryan is a good friend of Wall Street. He backed repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, thereby removing limits on the risks that commercial banks could undertake. He followed that up by voting for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which blocked regulation of derivatives. A federal report on the causes of the Great Recession cited both pieces of legislation as big factors.
Wall Street butters Ryan's bread. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, his largest set of contributions from 1998 to 2010 came from the financial, real estate, and insurance sector, clocking in at $2,127,115. While Ryan complained in an interview at the time that the 2008 bank bailout "sucks," he gave a much more forceful endorsement for bailing out his benefactors in a speech to the House: "If we fail to do the right thing, heaven help us -- if we fail to pass this, I fear the worst is yet to come." He defended the vote as necessary to "save the free enterprise system."
Ryan voted against new regulations on the banking industry in 2007. He voted against monitoring TARP funds. And he voted against modifying bankruptcy rules to avoid foreclosures.
In the meantime, he has opposed federal programs designed to provide immediate relief for people who are suffering -- including those in his district.
Despite looming layoffs of teachers and other vital public employees in the First District, Ryan voted against a $26 billion emergency aid package passed by Congress. The funds helped to prevent layoffs in the school systems by providing $4.5 million to Racine and $4.3 million in Kenosha.
Ryan also voted against the SCHIP child health care expansion despite the huge growth of childhood poverty. The percentage of children eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches ranges from 43 percent to 69 percent in the major cities of his district.
But Ryan has had little reason to fear electoral punishment for his extreme stands, even while representing a deeply suffering district. Before his latest triumph, Ryan had previously trounced ill-funded, relatively unknown Democratic candidates in fundraising by a 31-1 margin, thereby scaring away better-known Democrats. In 2010, Ryan's $3.9 million in funds gave him an astounding 325 times as much as his hopelessly outgunned Democratic opponent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"What you're seeing in the First District is not all that uncommon," says David Levinthal, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "Incumbents are so powerful that they can't really be challenged."
His last Democratic opponent, John Heckenlively, a bespectacled forty-six-year-old journalist, calls Ryan's impact on his district "appalling." Heckenlively notes that there are "somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 jobless in his district, and he's voting against extending unemployment benefits. He's been supporting trade policies and tax policies encouraging companies to ship jobs overseas. You can credit Ryan with a lot of these people losing their jobs."
But with his overstuffed campaign war chest -- coupled with his handsome face, congenial style, and intellectual image -- Ryan remains formidable.
"There are two Paul Ryans," explains Heckenlively. "The Wisconsin Ryan, who glad-hands everyone and tells them what they want to hear. And the Washington Ryan, who votes against people of his district. The problem is that people just aren't paying attention to what he's doing back in Washington."
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based journalist whose work has appeared in, among others, The Progressive, Z Magazine, Progressive Populist, Extra!, American Prospect, Isthmus, and In These Times, for whom he blogs twice a week on labor issues at workinginthesetimes.com. Bybee edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years.