Questioning the trajectory of Rep. Ryan’s rising star

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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This past Sunday was a big day for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints—but it was also a big day for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Rarely has a lowly House member received so much glowing praise from such diverse commentators. In just one day, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin effusively gushed to Chris Wallace on FOX News Sunday that she was “impressed” by him—George Will imagined him as vice president—and even “progressive” Washington Post health care blogger Ezra Klein grudgingly complimented him on the “daring solutions” offered in his budget plan (this all came on the heels of President Obama’s complimenting Ryan during the GOP conference Q&A session).

In recent weeks, Ryan’s stature has increased to the point where people are beginning to talk of him—not just a future vice president—but even (daresay) a future president. And, in all honesty, his budget plan is terrific. As ranking member on the House Budget Committee, Ryan has emerged as a rare, articulate spokesman for conservatism. (It would be difficult for me to criticize his plan, inasmuch as many of his ideas are identical to the ones I proposed in my “Contract for America, 2.0.”).

But while Ryan’s boyish looks, youthful style, and sharp intellect have garnered him much praise from conservatives desperate to find the next Ronald Reagan, he has one major problem: His actual voting record.

Though he talks like Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, some of Ryan’s most high-profile votes seem closer to Keynes than to Adam Smith. For example, in the span of about a year, Ryan committed fiscal conservative apostasy on three high-profile votes: The Troubled Asset Relief Program, or  TARP (whereby the government purchased assets and equity from financial institutions), the auto-bailout (which essentially implied he agrees car companies – especially the ones with an auto plant in his district—are too big to fail), and for a confiscatory tax on CEO bonuses (which essentially says the government has the right to take away private property—if it doesn’t like you).

While Ryan’s overall voting record is very conservative, the problem with casting these high-profile votes is that they demonstrate he is willing to fundamentally reject conservatism when the heat is on.

Because it is impossible to believe the highly intelligent and well read Rep. Ryan was unfamiliar with conservative economic principles, one must conclude he either 1). Doesn’t really believe in free market economics, or 2). Was willing to cast bad votes for purely political purposes.

From my standpoint, ignorance can be forgiven and overcome; the other explanations, however, seem to be disqualifiers for higher office.

In fairness, Ryan was not alone. Other “conservative” members of Congress voted for at some of these bad bills, but the difference, of course, is that Ryan is the one many conservatives are viewing as a “rising star” conservative wunderkind. (Note: Nobody is arguing Paul Ryan should be “primaried” by a conservative in his Congressional district, but, by the same token, isn’t all this effusive praise a bit overwrought?)

Though Ryan has downplayed his bad votes, what is more interesting is that few conservatives seem to hold them against him. His many defenders (and trust me, I’ve encountered them) cavalierly dismiss his voting record as mere pragmatism, or an easily forgiven mistake, like, ‘Oops, I voted for $700 billion! My bad…’

When pressed, his apologists often admit they support him because of his style and intellect, despite his actual voting record. The irony, of course, is that conservatives were furious when Clinton and Obama apologists dismissed their flaws by saying, “but he’s so smart,” or “he’s cool…”

Still, a few critical voices have slowly emerged. Commenting on the fact that Ryan has been given multiple passes, prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin once asked: “How many strikes do ‘Republican rising stars’ get?” (Apparently, if your name is Paul Ryan, you get many).

Still, the talk of Ryan’s “rising star” status continues, and one can only imagine that, should he ever run for president, the bad votes would finally catch up with him. After all, it’s one thing to argue that your bad votes came before your political awakening (as Mitt Romney did), but Ryan would have a hard time making that argument. Ryan’s votes were volitional.

Either way—love him or hate him—it is clear that Rep. Paul Ryan has many adoring fans. He has emerged as an articulate and effective spokesman for conservatism, even impressing Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and George Will. It will be interesting to see if his bad votes come back to haunt him, or if they will be merely a bump in the road on his way to electoral stardom.

Matt Lewis is a conservative writer and blogger, based in Alexandria, Va.