The Breakfast Table

Paul Ryan’s ability to tell stories about his family is one of his most powerful ways to connect with voters.

It was a dishonest speech. But the part about Paul Ryan’s mother was powerful.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Yes, Paul Ryan was an attack dog last night. He also matched good writing and delivery with dishonesty and hypocrisy. Points for style not substance. 

I know all of that. But I still felt a swell of affection for Ryan when he got to the part of his speech about his mother. “My mother is my role model,” he said, describing how she started her own business after being widowed at 50, and magicking himself, in my heart, into a blue-eyed teenager running for class president. The camera panned to 78-year-old Betty Douglas radiating pride and well-earned accomplishment back at her son. At her side, two little girls, her granddaughters I think, smiled up at her, and the multigenerational tableau did its work, melting me in a way that the Romney clan’s perfection never does. 

John pointed out that Ann Romney’s case for Mitt was based on assertions, not stories to remember and pass along. The details she did offer—pasta and tuna fish in their student days—were skimpy and manufactured (especially when you learn they were living off of proceeds from stock Mitt’s dad gave him). As I argued earlier this week, it’s just not credible for the Romneys to sell themselves as relatable. Paul and his mom, though, can do it. They have the death of his father when Paul was in high school, so last night’s details about the early bus she took to work were memorable. 

The Daily Beast has a nice catalog of how other candidates, including John McCain and Barack Obama, have deployed their love for their mothers for narrative gain. The comparison to the president is most apt: his stories about his mother worrying over the hospital bills and relying on food stamps when he was a child have stuck with us. 

In the light of morning, my glow of warmth for Ryan’s love for his mother has cooled to bafflement over how he can possibly say that his budget will help other people in their time of need. Fully 62 percent of the cuts he proposes come out of programs for the poor, as Jonathan Cohn points out an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows. This is where supply-side conservatives lose me. They just don’t have evidence their tax cuts will produce gains up and down the income ladder. All the other Betty Douglases out there will be better off if her son is never (vice) president.