Paul Ryan Epitomizes the Big Shift in the Republican Party

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, the youthful House Budget chair from Wisconsin, as his vice presidential running mate, highlights an important shift in Republican politics. The specialties of abortion, guns, God, and gays—once confined to the election season—have become the everyday fare of Republicans to a startling extent.

Ryan, despite his claim to fame as the Republicans’ leading economic theorist, has exemplified this transformation. As Marilyn Katz recently pointed out in In These Times,

Of the 81 bills Ryan has sponsored or cosponsored in this Congressional session, only three have dealt with the economy [however, Ryan’s House-backed budget proposal has sweeping and disastrous policy implications on every facet of economic life, from food stamps, college aid, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and a huge new tax incentive for corporations to relocate more of the U.S. productive base off-shore] .

The greatest number of bills he has backed on a single topic—10—have to do not with controlling the economy but controlling women’s bodies and what we can and cannot do with them.

And that’s not new. Over the 13 years he’s been in Congress, Ryan has voted 59 times—every time possible—to deny women access to abortion and even to forms of contraception. The 59 pieces of legislation range from declaring a fetus a human being with full legal rights to allowing hospitals to refuse treatment to a woman who needs post-abortion care—even if she is at death’s door.

Ryan often worked in tandem with the now-notorious Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, whose remarks about restricting abortion to cases of “legitimate” rape have made Akin a liability to Republicans among women voters.

What Ryan and Akin have done in the House of Representatives has been replicated in state legislatures around the country. In statehouse after statehouse, Republicans, unembarrassed by their claim of supporting “less intrusive” government, have made restrictions on abortion and contraception a salient, high-profile element of their work, in Virginia going so far as to seriously propose a requirement for “trans-vaginal probes” before an abortion could be authorized.

Ryan thus reflects a much broader trend among Republicans. On the one hand, the subservience to the deified corporate “job creators” –whose claim to this honorific are dubious given their preference for locating new jobs overseas while slashing their workforces at home—has become much more brazen with the Republicans essentially seeking the repeal of 20th century reforms and a return to the brass-knuckle Robber Baron economics of the late 1800’s.

At the same time, the regressive social agenda of the Right is no longer restricted to the election season and the passage of the party platform, but has become an integral part of the daily diet served up by Republicans at both the state and federal level.

This marks almost a reversal of Thomas Frank’s thesis in his critically important 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas, where he noted the tendency of the Republicans to spotlight “election-season” issues like gay marriage, abortion, gun control, and supposed Democratic plans to ban the Bible so as to heat up to “white-hot” intensity the “anger points” of working-class and poor whites. Once in office, Frank suggested, the Republicans then typically set aside their cultural agenda in favor of policies promoting the upward redistribution of wealth.

But there is no setting aside of this agenda today.

The Republicans’ ability to hold together this awkward coalition of CEOs and Christian Soldiers has been enabled, as Frank persuasively argues, by the failure of a Wall Street-dominated Democratic Party unwilling and unable to stoke up a rival set of economic “anger points” among the working-class and poor whites lured to the GOP by their sharply crafted pitch on social issues.

The carefully-modulated, muted, and often incomprehensibly muddled Democratic message—whether about Wall Street bailouts and regulation, an increasingly dollar-driven and failing healthcare system, the ongoing wave of home foreclosures, continually falling wages, or the flight of the US manufacturing base to low-wage dictatorships—allows the Republicans to effectively divert widely felt anger and resentment downward to the purported sinful lifestyles of “the others” rather than to examine the misery imposed on their own lives by the corporate masters who provide an overwhelming share of the funding for both major parties.

The Democrats must somehow gain enough fighting spirit to reach the low-income whites now lining up behind Romney and Ryan, or America faces a further descent into barbarism.

Roger Bybee wrote “The Truth About Paul Ryan,” the cover story of The Progressive’s March 2011 issue. His postings on Ryan are part of "All You Need to Know About Paul Ryan.” To read more about Paul Ryan by The Progressive, click here.

Bybee’s collected writings on Paul Ryan from The Progressive and other publications can be found at www.zcommunications.org.

His latest piece on Ryan from August 27 appears on Huffington Post.

Sirius Radio host Mike Feder says, “Roger Bybee is an indispensable source on Paul Ryan."

To read more about Paul Ryan by The Progressive, click here.