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Paul Ryan, Global Thinker?

You are Malala Yousafzai, age 15. You have spent several years of your childhood advocating for girls’ education in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, a place where many well-armed people do not look kindly upon this endeavor. A few weeks ago, while riding a school bus, you are shot in the face by a Taliban militant. You somehow manage to survive and are taken to a British hospital for rehabilitation. Ah, but there is a silver lining to this horror: you are named to Foreign Policys list of the top 100 “Global Thinkers.” You are in the top 10—along with...Paul Ryan!

Arguably the only things more superfluous than magazine lists (something that, yes, even this magazine has been known to offer up at times) are critiques of such lists. But this latest one from Foreign Policy—featured on the cover of its new issue—is worth reckoning with for what it says about elite reputation in our era, specifically about elite reputation’s durability in the face of contrary evidence. 

And no one exemplifies this better than Ryan. After he was selected as Romney’s running mate, I took a closer look at how it was that the young Wisconsin congressman had developed a reputation as a big thinker, despite the fact that the numbers in his grand manifesto didn’t really add up and that his intellectual underpinnings seemed more Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged than Locke and Oakeshott. What I concluded was that Ryan recognized early on the value of being someone who can throw around numbers and policy in a Washington that has grown increasingly ignorant of such matters: “The upshot is that Washington now finds itself highly susceptible to doe-eyed young men brandishing graphs. What these ‘wonks’ propose doesn’t even have to add up or be scorable, as the case may be with the Ryan budget, because people who lack much policy knowledge themselves regard those who have it with a reflexive awe.” This dynamic was even stronger within Ryan’s party—as Republicans had grown more anti-government, they relied even more on people like Ryan who understood government enough to articulate the case for its dismantling.

There was a moment during the campaign when it looked like Ryan might have put all this at risk. His Tampa convention speech was so riddled with brazen elisions and deceptions that it threatened to overwhelm his reputation as the teller of hard truths; rather than making his pitch for painful Medicare reforms, Ryan spent the campaign echoing Mitt Romney’s attacks on the Medicare cost savings in Obamacare. Add in the amusing kerfuffle over vastly exaggerating his marathon time and it looked like Ryan might be seriously imperiling his hard-won image. But I suspected otherwise. I found, for one thing, that even in the day right after the convention speech, Ryan admirers like former Clinton budget chief Alice Rivlin were still willing to stick up for him, and that conservative champions like Bill Kristol and Vin Weber were willing to forgive the avoidance of entitlement reform.

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And now, here Ryan is, not only being sought for a leading role in the “fiscal cliff” talks, but promoted from domestic policy wonk to “global thinker.” It’s all the more remarkable given the magazine’s framing of its list: “The backlash after the heady Arab revolutions of 2011. The rumblings of war with nuclear-aspiring Iran. The bloody persistence of Bashar al-Assad in civil war-torn Syria. Not to mention a Europe mired in its biggest crisis since World War II and an American presidential campaign that distracted and depressed in equal measure. If ever there were a year for Big Ideas, and a frustration at not hearing them from our leaders, 2012 was it. Which made it all the more rewarding—if even more challenging than usual—to identify this year’s Foreign Policy Global Thinkers.”

Wasn’t one of the “leaders” who didn’t provide those Big Ideas and instead “distracted and depressed” during the presidential campaign...Paul Ryan? The magazine addresses this contradiction by creating an alternate reality in its capsule justifying Ryan's appearance on the list: "In the 2012 presidential election, contender Mitt Romney didn't just champion Ryan's ideas -- he tapped the 42-year-old libertarian-leaning lawmaker as his running mate, catapulting the debate over the size and scope of the U.S. government to the top of the political agenda." Well, not exactly—Romney tapped Ryan and didn't champion his ideas. But whatever—after all, the list also includes a couple of the other politicians who are implicated in its introduction, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. And Ryan’s hardly the only one who makes the cut despite some, shall we say, glitches on the resume: tied at number 38 are the Cheneys, pere et fille. The rest are pretty much what you’d expect—Clintons and Gateses and Pussy Rioters and, lo, way down at 88, fully 80 slots below the author of the Ryan plan...Juergen Habermas! All in all, the makings for an excellent cocktail party in a certain town in Switzerland. No backward baseball caps allowed!

*Addendum: It should be noted that Foreign Policy is hardly alone in pairing Paul Ryan and young Malala. They are both among the finalists whom you can vote for to be TIMEs Person of the Year!

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis