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The Wyden/Ryan plan for getting ahead

Ross Douthat brings up a quirk of our politics that often puzzles me: Why don't more politicians learn from the success of Ron Wyden and Paul Ryan over the past year or two?

Wyden and Ryan were not well known five years ago. And they've not become well known because they've ascended to the chairmanships of important committees (though Ryan is, in fact, ranking member on the House Budget Committee). They've made their names by releasing big, bold policy initiatives and then spending a lot of time trying to explain them to people.

And it's worked. They've had two of the fastest rises, with the least negative publicity, of any politicians in Washington in recent years. But there's not much competition on that path. There's a lot of competition to be the biggest partisan, or the most aggressive tea partier, or the best fundraiser, or the most truculent swing vote. But not to be known for proposing big ideas on difficult problems.

Which isn't to say no one is attempting it. I've been impressed by Jeff Merkley and Bob Corker, for instance, both of whom are omnipresent in policy debates lately. Mark Warner is less of a root-and-branch reformer than Ryan and Paul, but he's been digging in as well. And there are others. Still, it's a curiously sparse field.

When I've asked Hill staff and elected officials about this, I've gotten an interesting answer: Think about what you need to do to become a politician, they say. Rise up in your local party leadership. Raise a lot of money. Get yourself quoted in the media. Campaign effectively. You don't really need to know that much about policy. And so a lot of elected officials simply don't know much about policy. Even if they wanted to become known as problem solvers and thinkers, they don't have the chops for it, and the pace of modern campaigning means they never have time to develop those chops, either. It's a depressing thought.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 22, 2010; 2:41 PM ET
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good thing we have guys like dave weigel in the media working to raise the level of debate while those idiot politicians lower it.

Posted by: cdosquared5 | July 22, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I think it largely goes to show that if anybody who is on the committee that is writing a bill wants to exert leadership and inject ideas into the debate around it, they can. Wyden did this with health-care, Merkley now on financial reform, Lincoln was kindof forced to in derivatives, I also feel like I've seen Franken author a lot of consumer protection amendments that have come up. I think the news following the people who create the ideas and bills themselves is relatively new and the result of blogs following then names attached to bills and finding out who was responsible. It's probably a good thing.

Posted by: tmorgan2 | July 22, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Ezra -
Why aren't you writing about Ms. Sherrod? Isn't that political news today? I thouhgt you would be all over that.

Posted by: jimkearney19761 | July 22, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I know that the constant campaigning is as real a problem as it is commonly cited. Still, to some degree legislators spend a lot of time in committee meetings talking about reports, taking testimony from witnesses, etc. They also have staff who, I understand, spend at least part of their time researching these issue. They also get lobbied by a variety of interest groups who all want to talk to them, at least for some time, about the client's take on an issue. And, of course, most of them do this for at least several years.

You're telling me that some back bencher on a healthcare committee hasn't managed to absorb at least a relative expertise in healthcare issues just by hearing about them for the last decade? I mean, I'd think that most of them would at least know all the common arguments and fequently cited facts/stats just because they've heard them all.

If true, then the quality of our legislators is even worse than I hoped.

Posted by: MosBen | July 22, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein:
Are you still working at The Washington Post? I thought the Ombudsman would have seen that you were fired by now, but then again, I guess creating and hosting a forum where, among other things, the FREEDOM OF THE PRESS is threatened (by people claiming to be journalists, no less), actual physical harm is discussed regarding conservatives and others by you and your fellow journalists (you are one, right?)who you dislike/disagree with, and professors of journalism and law seem to value and apply the Constitution on a case-by-case basis isn't that problematic in some circles. Well, who are we the public to question the wise elite in the pressrooms (is that where one writes a blog?) and intelligentsia. I mean, a college degree and campaign work surely qualifies one to threaten the one freedom that allowed that same person to have a job and earn a living, right?

Posted by: frankensundae | July 22, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I agree about Wyden and the need for more problem solvers. But please don't pretend there's some competition to be more partisan. The way I see it, there's Bernie Sanders and about 57 anonymous white people. The House is a bit better, there's Grayson and a handful of CBC members, and then 200 anonymous white fundraisers/legislators. Get real Ezra.

Posted by: michaelh81 | July 22, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I have said for years the effective problem with American politics is the skill set needed to get elected is quite different from the skill set needed to govern effectively. This provides us with a constant string of people who, once elected, have no idea what to do aside from winning the next election.

Posted by: dlk117561 | July 22, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

All you have to do is watch a few congressional hearings to see how stupid many of the legislators really are. They truly do not know much about policy and mouth talking points.

I don;t know about Ryan, but Merkley was President or head of the oregon State Senate and learned about issues that way. Oregon has a tradition of Senators (think Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield) who were intelligent, independent and good legislators. Recent GOPers are the exceptions. He also learned to be a consensus builder, spoemthing also in short supply.

Warner went straight to VA governor from business, then campaigned a bit for Pres, found no support, and ran for Senate. At least he knows something about business as well as having executive experience at the state level.

But they are exceptions.

Posted by: Mimikatz | July 22, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

frankensundae, it might be fun for you to learn that most of the things in your post are factually inaccurate. Awesome, right? Now you can stop being all ruffled up by this Journolist thing! Man, you whole weekend just freed up!

Posted by: MosBen | July 22, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I was going to make the provocative point that while Ryan and Wyden are good at "making a name for themselves" in certain wonkish circles, it's unclear whether or not they're actually accomplishing anything.

The ACA has some Wyden-ish aspects to it. But, in the main, he was basically spit on by his Democratic colleagues. His chief amendments were not even given a vote. He had to threaten to derail the whole process to get anything he wanted. Likewise his tax proposals while technically interesting have gone nowhere.

Ryan, on the other hand, is the Ranking member on an important committee. But he's not in the minority leader/whip/conference chair track, and it's not clear to me he ever will be. I suspect the typical Republican House member is more interested in what RSC chair Mike Pence has to say about any given topic than what Ryan has to say.

So, once again, have Wyden and Ryan really been that effective? They get more respect from the Ezra Kleins and Reihan Salams and David Brookses of the world. But does that really matter in the grand scheme of things?

Posted by: NicholasBeaudrot | July 22, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Surely you can hire good staff to pore over the details of policy proposals ? The politician just has to be good at hiring, have some principles to formulate the goal of the policy, and be intelligent enough to read a brief and master it quickly.

The problem on the Republican side is that to survive the primaries you have to either be genuinely unintelligent, or else put on a very convincing performance of being unintelligent. So a combination of principles and intelligence is almost incompatible with achieving national office as a Republican.

Your example of Paul Ryan just proves my point: he seems to be quite committed to his small-government principles, as shown by his plans to gut Social Security. But by putting that in writing he's really grabbed the third rail with both hands, showing himself to be genuinely stupid.

Posted by: richardcownie | July 22, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

But this all raises the question: Is "knowing about policy" really a legislative qualification?

Consider that while both Wyden and Ryan have gotten good press for their plans, neither has gotten them enacted into law. Wyden-Bennett was probably the ONLY realistic bipartisan health reform option out there but it stayed in the background through the whole process. By the end, Wyden had to resort to possibly withholding his vote just to get a chance to present an amendment RESEMBLING his plan into the bill. And even then, the Free Choice Amendment failed. When he goes back home to campaign, he'll be running on the same flawed bill as every other Democrat -- a bill that barely resembles his actual plan.

As for Ryan, while he got the numbers to work out on a deficit reduction plan, it has virtually zero chance of becoming law. Whatever deficit reduction deal ultimately occurs, it's going to take shape around the cuts and taxes that both parties find least politically harmful -- I guarantee you that voucherizing Social Security isn't going to be one of those.

So it seems to me that this path to "success" is a pretty limited one. Members of Congress need to be elected to do their jobs, and just having well-constructed policy structures out there doesn't necessarily help them with that goal. That's especially true where those great ideas never actually translate into law.

Posted by: NS12345 | July 22, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

richardcownie, Ryan's plans may be wrongheaded, but "grabbing the third rail" gets its power from the fact that doing so is supposed to be political suicide. Is Ryan in any danger of being ousted by a primary challange or Democratic challanger? I honestly don't know, but I doubt it.

In general, though, I think you're right that serious policy proposals or serious compromise proposals with the other side seem to hurt Republicans more than help these days. Of course, when they eventually take back either Congress or the Presidency they'll rediscover principles about having to pass unemployment extensions and other basic aspects of keeping the government running. If the Dems don't get rid of the filibuster in January, the Republicans will also discover their newfound desire for good, efficient government by the majority and their hatred of procedural manuevers.

Posted by: MosBen | July 22, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

@NicholasBeaudrot - Good point. They aren't getting much traction when it comes to changing actual legislation, are they?

I'd make another point - there's just not much political reward for wonkery. Look at Ryan's budget. He wrote an accurate appraisal of the spending cuts necessary to support small government principles.

The GOP at large, on the other hand, has embraced the mantra that lower taxation shouldn't have to affect the scope of government services like Medicare and Social Security.

Here's the rub: The GOP party line is factually incoherent, but voters can't distinguish between the two. It's wildly more popular to believe that we can have no taxes and all the benefits we'd like, and people vote that way.

And as long as people don't engage with politics on a realistic level, policy wonks are always going to suffer, because their honesty is much less popular than a loveable lie.

Posted by: strawman | July 22, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

@frankensundae : this thread's for you....

If the full thread of the story Strong is covering is released, then people can judge his interpretation by LOOKING AT THE SAME MATERIAL THAT STRONG IS USING. To keep driving traffic to the site, only the portions of the thread covering the issue of the article needs to be released. When the next story comes up then that part of the thread can be posted.

Without this, all whining about journolist from the right is just the braying of the breitbarts (beasts) in the fields and not intelligent commentary.

Sounds like you? Bray much?

Posted by: srw3 | July 22, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

@frankensundae : this thread's for you....

If the full thread of the story Strong is covering is released, then people can judge his interpretation by LOOKING AT THE SAME MATERIAL THAT STRONG IS USING. To keep driving traffic to the site, only the portions of the thread covering the issue of the article needs to be released. When the next story comes up then that part of the thread can be posted.

Without this, all whining about journolist from the right is just the braying of the breitbarts (beasts) in the fields and not intelligent commentary.

Sounds like you? Bray much?

Posted by: srw3 | July 22, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

strawman, I think Ryan's budget actually turned up a bit short on eliminating the deficit, as draconian as his cuts were. Otherwise, I agree with your post.

Posted by: MosBen | July 22, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

"richardcownie, Ryan's plans may be wrongheaded, but "grabbing the third rail" gets its power from the fact that doing so is supposed to be political suicide."

I don't know about his seat. But by publishing his deficit plan he put a lot of other Republicans in the very awkward spot of having to either openly agree that they plan to gut entitlements, or else explain why they don't support the policy proposal of the ranking Republican on the budget committee.

I think that made them all *very* uncomfortable. And I think a consequence is that Ryan's career will go nowhere: he's not going to get a leadership position, he's not going to ascend to the Senate, he's not going to be a governor or VP candidate. He won't have any power, and his ideas won't be implemented. That counts as failure to me.

Posted by: richardcownie | July 22, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

One would think that the Senate ought to be made for this kind of work -- you have a six-year window that, once you've done the orientation, gives you the staff and the committee position to formulate policies that aren't necessarily tied to the news cycle.

But that brings up Nicholas Beaudrot's question: is that really a recipe for success? And perhaps one for the research desk -- has it ever been? I'm inclined to agree with tmorgan2 that there's never been a better time than now to see the impact of individuals on the drafting process, in committee and on the floor, but that in turn suggests that if you want to get things into law, you have to contribute incrementally.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | July 22, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

apologies for the repeat post

Posted by: srw3 | July 22, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse


Republicans: Honesty is much less popular than a loveable lie.

I think we have the new republican motto for 2010! Fine work!!!

Posted by: srw3 | July 22, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

richardcownie, I see your point. I think you'd have to show that he *was* in line for such a position before he released his budget and that the budget killed his chances, but I see what you were saying.

Posted by: MosBen | July 22, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Klein, you little J-list creep, I can't believe this rag hasn't fired you yet. You have no credibility--zero. Go work for a liberal think tank and quit pretending to be a journalist.

Posted by: tpettyjohn | July 22, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

"And so a lot of elected officials simply don't know much about policy."

Welcome to DC rookie. do us a favor and stand on the right when using the metro.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | July 22, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Brietbart got the edited tape from someone within the NAACP then takes it to Fox. NAACP condemns the subject before investigating. Whitehouse hastily fires the subject on that tape before it airs. Unedited tape actually proves to be less offensive. Whitehouse and the NAACP backtracks and blames it all on Breitbart and Fox. Obama media condemns Fox right on cue. It would not surprise me in the least if the NAACP and the Whitehouse set up this whole thing.

I would like to hear what the liberal reporters that belong to their little club at JournoList are saying about all this, but alas, they have closed that rave and the rats have scurried away to another hidden location. How brave.

Posted by: tulsadave | July 22, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

"I think you'd have to show that he *was* in line for such a position"

Not really. The claim is that Ryan has had a rapid and pain-free "rise" by making serious policy proposals. What I'm saying is that he hasn't had a "rise" at all, except in being talked about by wonks and pundits. And for the value of being talked about by pundits, you could look at say Bart Stupak, or maybe Joe Lieberman. You say controversial things and make yourself a pain in the ass for your own party leaders, and that gets you a lot of publicity and makes you a favorite of the pundits. But it leads nowhere.

BTW, I checked his election figures, and his seat seems pretty safe, it has been about 65:35 the last few cycles.

Posted by: richardcownie | July 22, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps I should Google "JournoHack".

Posted by: tulsadave | July 22, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Who cares?


Posted by: kpres | July 22, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

--"And so a lot of elected officials simply don't know much about policy."--

Poor Klein. Is there some magic about knowing "policy" that will do anyone any good, other than a politician or a propagandist? "Policy" is the opposite of "rational thought" and "personal responsibility". "Policy" is the refuge of morons and incompetents. "Policy" gives morons and incompetents something to refer to that's been "sanctioned" and with which the moron and incompetent can buttress his own tiny credibility. "Policy" is the police state. "Policy" is the good German, obeying orders.

"Policy" is the propagandist's dream.

Posted by: msoja | July 22, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

I was going to say that politicians don't score many points with voters for knowing about policy. Barack Obama would be ridiculously popular if that were the case. Newt Gingrich would be the man to be on the right.

And then I read the trolls on here, and realized how this applies to journalism, too. Maybe Ezra is a die-hard liberal, but he does an awesome job of explaining how Washington works, and certainly isn't afraid to call out the left for its faults. Right-wingers are jealous because they get together and exchange jokes about minorities. Liberals get together and exchange ideas. They like to learn. They like to grow. And they get fired or ridiculed for it.

Posted by: spearmint_altoids | July 22, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

This reminds me of someone worth mentioning in this context: Bill Bradley.

Posted by: tomjf | July 22, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

@mosben - Thanks for the clarification!

@swr3 - Right on. I'd always hoped my sloganeering talent would be used for good, not evil, but I guess you can't be picky in a recession.

Posted by: strawman | July 22, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

soggy: "Policy" is the propagandist's dream.

What a manly, manly man you are.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | July 23, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

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