The Mythic Paul Ryan Enters, Stage Right
Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney in Norfolk, Virginia. Credit: Wikipedia.
For those of us wondering what will be the defining story line of the 2012 presidential election, the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate makes it a whole new ball game. Maybe. Or maybe not.
The story line so far has remained in flux. For a while the common wisdom said it all depended on the state of the economy; nothing else mattered. Then the conventional wisdom decided that the big story was the Obama campaign’s full-court advertising press to define Romney as a callous capitalist: Would it succeed or backfire?
Now, most of the pundits tell us, the Ryan pick really is a game-changer. That view is summed up in two columns on the op-ed page of today’s New York Times: “Let the Real Debate Begin,” says Joe Nocera: “With Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket, Americans can have a much needed discussion about the size and role of the federal government.” Roger Cohen agrees that we are finally going to get down to substantive issues: “Romney's choice of Ryan has the merit of opening a serious debate about the debt undermining America.”
If they’re right, then Americans will finally get what both candidates say they’ve wanted all along: A clear-cut choice between competing philosophies of political economy. Frank Bruni writes on the same Times op-ed page:
Right after Romney announced Ryan, who has positioned himself as the wonk prince of the Republican Party, there was some barbed commentary that Romney had outsourced the policy for his campaign, answering the question of what he really stood for by standing with Ryan.
Then Bruni adds another perspective: “Romney outsourced the emotion, the charisma and the narrative as well.” “What Paul Ryan can give Mitt Romney is a tutorial in political myth-making,” says the teaser for Bruni’s column. Read the whole piece and you’ll find this spot-on assertion: “Modern politics demands some myth-making.”
But the mythic narrative that Bruni sees Ryan bringing to the GOP ticket has little if anything to do with political philosophy or economic first principles. It’s all about personal image: Ryan’s striking ability to turn himself into the outsized hero of a compelling life story.
Bruni explains that there’s
a nonstop chorus of Republican allies urging [Romney] to talk more about his Mormonism or his Massachusetts years or Ann Romney’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. They want him to show some skin. They want him to show some soul. Ryan does that so deftly that the contradictions, holes and hooey in his story recede. ... He has fine-tuned the most valuable oxymoron in political life: he’s utterly slick in his projection of genuineness.
(It seems to me I’ve heard that oxymoron applied to Ronald Reagan, both as praise and as blame, more than once or twice.)
I lift up Frank Bruni’s column for two reasons. First, it’s a rare example of a house writer for a prestigious newspaper focusing on the power of myth. Bruni replaced Frank Rich in the culture-critic-turned-political-pundit niche on the Times op-ed page. So it’s not surprising that he would see politics as a competition between dramatic narratives where the characters are not principles or concepts but real flesh-and-blood people playing mythic roles.
Second, his column is a useful reminder that the storm of punditry whipped up by the Ryan pick may pass as quickly as the summer thunderstorms out here in the Colorado Rockies.
In the end, the decisive story may not be about political principles or the economy, stupid. It may be about what some experts think every election is about: The candidates themselves as characters acting out implied, vaguely defined, yet emotionally powerful narratives.
When the nation’s most eminent leaders cajoled and flattered a reluctant George Washington into coming out of retirement to be the first president of the United States, they weren’t especially interested in Washington’s political or economic principles. Future Republicans as well as future Federalists added their imploring voices. They were all convinced that no one else embodied the emotion, the charisma and the narrative needed to hold the fledgling nation together.
The mythic meaning of the presidency has always rested, more or less, on the mythic stature of the person holding the office. Presidential elections have always been understood, more or less, as contests between contending mythic heroes. Whether this election will be remembered as more or less in that regard is a crucial question. It won’t be finally answered until some time after Election Day.
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