Like a phoenix risen from the ashes of Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is back.
The conservative budget guru is once again being hailed as the Ideas Man who will lead the GOP to electoral salvation. But this time, he's supposedly toning down his idealism a bit and, as is his party in general, putting on a softer, gentler face.
From Politico's Jake Sherman, we hear that Ryan "is sifting through the lessons of his political past to shape a new persona" and, after trying to radically redraw the federal budget toward his conservative vision in the past, now "betting that incrementalism — legislative half-steps toward conservative solutions is the best look for Republicans."
"The brand Ryan is cultivating is deliberate, serious, and aims to be inclusive of other political parties and voters who haven't considered Republicans," he adds.
Ah, there it is, the "S" word: Serious.
Ryan is often portrayed as the lone adult in the room, the man with serious ideas when the rest of Washington is embroiled in partisan sniping. Whether or not he's truly offering sound policy — and there have been many questions on the front — he's incessantly framed as being above-the-fray, concerned only with making Washington work right. In a word: Serious.
The trouble is that the mystique is largely media-crafted. A quick Lexis-Nexis search of U.S. newspapers for "Paul Ryan" and "serious" returned more than 3,000 results from the past year alone.
To be sure, Ryan does offer up a lot of policy proposals, an anomaly in D.C., and especially for a party that has voted to repeal ObamaCare more than 40 times without offering, until now, any semblance of an alternative. Yet his policy ideas don't always hold water. Sometimes, they're deeply flawed.
His previous budget plans were widely criticized for relying on highly suspect data, and for following a formula along the lines of: Cut spending + pixie dust = economic growth.
As for Ryan's big new anti-poverty crusade, the details there, too, are suspect. His ideas — placing work requirements on safety-net programs, tax breaks, and so on — are "supply-side policies that don't change the overall level of poverty" says Ryan Cooper in The Washington Post, making them no more than "vague rhetoric and window dressing."
Other thorough assessments of his anti-poverty campaign have been similarly harsh. Meaning, it's not so much that Ryan has changed, but rather that he's tucked his old ideas into new packaging and — voila! — become the serious man once again.
Consider it the Republican rebrand writ small.
Part of Ryan's enduring "seriousness" is actually deliberate coyness, which allows pundits to hang the simple narrative on him. He's deflected questions about his political ambitions with a "Who, me?" shrug, while insisting he's just trying to do his job. It's an effective though farcical facade. Ryan has a knack for shrewdly self-promoting his supposed quiet humility and wonkish credentials. As the economist Jared Bernstein wrote, Ryan "is the classic example of the adage that if you've got a reputation for being an early riser, you can sleep til noon."
To be sure, Ryan did help craft the mini budget compromise that passed earlier this year to avoid another government shutdown. But absolutely no one — okay, maybe Ted Cruz — wanted another shutdown, especially the GOP leadership, considering how badly the last one hurt the party. In that sense, Ryan was merely ensuring the GOP didn't self-immolate once again.
Ryan's big rebrand doesn't prove that he's a "serious" lawmaker. It does, however, prove he's serious about looking serious.