By Joel Shapiro of Portland, Oregon. Joel is a longtime Democratic activist , policy staffer, and attorney. He most recently worked for Senator Ron Wyden and Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel.
A long time ago, in another political lifetime, Paul Ryan and I were friends. This is our story.
Back in the early 90’s, like many others, I stumbled through my own Reality Bites phase. After working on an ill-fated congressional race in Iowa, I loaded my worldly possessions into a car and set out with a dream to work on Capitol Hill.
The Hill, of course, is a challenging job market. I started volunteering for a freshman House member and waited tables at a pizza joint to make ends meet. I’d noticed a cool-looking gym called Capitol Hill Squash & Fitness. One day, I strode in and asked about becoming a trainer. I had no certification, but being a fairly athletic guy, I was hired.
Life was good. The additional paycheck was nice. But the best part was that as gym staff, I had a free pass to an upscale fitness club populated by politically-involved patrons. Besides lots of Hill staffers, I encountered Senators, House members, media stars, and even a Cabinet secretary. Once, I even trained Justice Scalia. But that’s another story.
After a few months there, a new shift partner joined me. A tall, dark-haired guy from Wisconsin. Yes, Paul Ryan was my fitness training co-worker. At the time, Paul was a junior staffer at Empower America, working for Jack Kemp.
I enjoyed working with Paul. Although he was intensely conservative, Paul was a decent guy and we got on well.
Paul was outgoing and personable, and passionate about his political views. As you might imagine, spending hours together at the gym, Paul and I had plenty of arguments over economic policy. I was well-versed in partisan debates, having landed a day job with a Democratic member by this time. In fact, when Paul received his first Congressional job offer, he called me for input. I encouraged him to accept the job. In retrospect, perhaps I should have tried to dissuade him from that path!
This post is not the forum to argue the deficiencies and cruel consequences of the Ryan budget. However, I do want to pass along some observations about Paul’s ideas.
To put things in a positive light: Paul is consistent. What he believes now and the policies he puts forth – based on Ayn Rand’s objectivist economic theory – have not changed at all. Paul was resolutely committed to the same policy prescriptions in his early twenties as he is now as Chairman of the Budget Committee. He was also just as smug and dismissive of opposing viewpoints back then as he is now on a larger stage.
To put it less charitably, one could say that Paul’s beliefs are impervious to reality. Nothing that’s happened in the last several decades has had any impact on Paul’s views. He rigidly adhered to supply-side economics then, and still does now; even though that approach was tried and broadly discredited.
What was frustrating in arguing with Paul back then is still a frustration today. He knows what he believes, and he doesn’t care about the data. To be honest, hearing Paul now is even more frustrating because there’s no equal footing. He gets to assert his theories via a large megaphone and a deferential media.
Most curious, however, is Paul’s reputation as an über policy wonk. Policy wonks base their proposals on data. Paul’s ideas, however, have always derived from ideology not evidence.
The truth is: Paul Ryan has always been – and still is – a rigid ideologue, not a deep-thinking policy wonk. The Ryan budget would base federal spending on outdated, discredited conservative theory. Think I’m being unfair? Read David Stockman’s book. We’ve tried these theories before and they didn’t work.
OK, I said this wasn’t the forum to debate policy, so I’ve already taken this tangent too far. My last comment on Paul relates to the flak he’s taking for lying in his convention speech.
Far be it from me to defend Paul’s speech, but I do think the criticism is slightly mischaracterized. I never found Paul to be a liar. What I did find is that Paul is extremely zealous and partisan in framing arguments. That aggressiveness is now in full view.
But while I find some of Paul’s highly-politicized arguments beyond the pale, he is unembarrassed and unbowed. He offers a full-throated defense of his charges, facts be damned.
It’s been a long time since I’ve talked to Paul, and I’d like to extend a warm welcome to my old friend. Paul is a legitimately nice guy and I do hope he has a pleasant visit to our beautiful state. Sadly, I doubt we’ll be able to catch up on old times. Although Paul’s still well known for his workouts, I’m guessing he won’t have time to join me at my gym.
And I’m not going to join him for a run. I never was fast enough to hang with the sub 3-hour marathoners.