Defining Wonkishness Down

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 25 2012 9:28 AM

Defining Wonkishness Down

I'm noticing a pattern in coverage of Paul Ryan. Yesterday's NYT and WaPo gripe-collecters on how conservatives wanted to "unleash" the candidate were a taster. The next wave of Ryan story is the "the wonk is loosed" piece. When you see just how the "wonkishness" is being defined, it's fairly amusing.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

One example: Former Slatester Rebecca Kaplan reports that Ryan is "letting his wonk flag fly."

In addition to a debt clock -- now a must-have prop at Republican political rallies -- Ryan was flanked by two large screens that projected a favorite tool of academics and businessmen: a PowerPoint presentation.

“I’m kind of a PowerPoint guy, so I hope you'll bear with me,” Ryan told the audience as he began clicking through four slides, which showed graphs depicting U.S. debt held by the public from 1940 to present, debt per person in the United States, percentage of debt held by foreign countries and a breakdown of federal spending. He then launched into a 10-minute monologue on the federal debt, throwing around terms such as “Congressional Budget Office” and “Treasury bills” to illustrate his point.
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That's all it takes? Four slides about the size of the debt? Wouldn't the wonky thing here be a presentation on the debt followed by details of how Ryan will cut it back? I suppose that's not possible, because if the Romney remix of the Ryan plan is enacted, we add to the debt by restoring $700 billion to future Medicare spending, stop most tax increases, and increase defense spending.

This is one of my problems with the "fiscal cliff" concept. It's a useful term that mashes up two concepts. One rock on the "cliff" is the sequester that will cut $1.2 trillion in spending. Another is the expiration of Bush-era tax rates. If both of these plans go ahead, all projections tell us that the deficit will decrease. But it's easy to mislead people and talk about the need to "avoid the fiscal cliff," and the simultaneous need to shrink the debt -- through magic, I suppose.

No matter. The "Powerpoints = wonkishness" theme is getting around, although different reporters are adding different levels of caveats. Joe Vardon:

In shirt and tie, professorial-sounding U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan said “this is the crisis at our doorstep” as he plowed through a PowerPoint presentation on the federal debt... Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, meticulously guided 1,680 supporters in Lima through pie charts and graphics on the debt this afternoon.
Before the question and answer portion of Saturday's event, Ryan used two large projector screens to illustrate the federal government's ever-increasing debt.
"I'm kind of a PowerPoint guy, so I hope you'll bear with me," he said.
Ryan used a graph to show that by 2040, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States will owe nearly 250% of the gross domestic product or the entire American economy.

Later in the stories there're more questions about Ryan's actual plans. Still, expect to see "hey, he used charts!" deployed as one of the arguments deployed to prove that the veep nominee elevated the campaign.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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