Our lives are hectic. There’s a swirling, noisy cacophony around us, seemingly without end, and the importance of seeking out some restful quiet can’t be understated. Still, be careful that your search doesn’t take you to Orfield Labs in Minneapolis, home to the world’s quietest space. While a normal room in silence has a sound level at about 30 decibels, this particular room sits at negative 9 decibels, a Guinness-approved world record. Scientists at Orfield Labs—which uses the room to test fractional sounds for products like car dashboard switches—have also researched how people react to the noiselessness. The room’s total sound-absorbency actually lets you hear your own insides in action: your heart beating, your lungs inflating, even your eardrums vibrating. Not surprisingly, this can be a little much to take, especially if the room is dark. Hallucinations are common. The longest anyone’s been able to stay in the chamber? 45 minutes. It turns out that an overwhelming volume of nothingness drives us insane.
A similar void has engulfed this asthmatic presidential campaign as of late. Since the end of the GOP primary, the race for the White House has been rather sexless and sour and colored by its empty smallness. While the future of the social safety net, the make-up of the Supreme Court and so much more are to be decided in November, the campaigns have been content to sit back and coast on strategic inanity. The country teeters, yet the plays being called into the huddle are by and large tactical attacks. Did Mitt Romney pay his taxes? Does President Obama believe in the American Dream? With so many negative ads coming from Romney’s campaign itself—more than 90 percent of all his advertising has been negative, according to the Washington Post’s ad tracker—it’s been clear from the starting pistol that Team Romney wants to run on a pure referendum on Obama’s presidential tenure. This is why Romney hasn’t felt it necessary to put forth specific plans and proposals. His campaign has kept news headlines focused on gaffes and mediocre jobs numbers, all part of a small-bore ground war. It has the effect of imbuing this campaign with the joy of a Depression-era dance marathon, the sinking feeling that even though we are careening forward, nothing is actually happening. It could be worse: a few elections ago, August was spent hip-deep in the soul-crumbling “swiftboating” idiocy, for instance. But still, 2012’s presidential election has been little more than a holding pattern personified—bogged down in quicksand, falling through trapdoors, an elongated intermezzo of trivial minimalism offering more noise than signal.
Then came last Friday night, and the surprising news of Rep. Paul Ryan’s addition to the Romney ticket. The fairly shocking pick suggested that odd feeling you sometimes get just before you fall asleep, when an abrupt falling sensation jolts you awake. Never mind that this particular hypnic jerk came during a late-night Friday evening news dump during the Olympics. Ryan energizes the base, which had been moaning its displeasure over the state of the themeless, insipid Romney campaign. In so doing, Ryan kicks awake a campaign so lifeless it didn’t seem able to fog up a hand mirror. Now, those suggesting that Ryan suddenly makes this race a newly clear choice haven’t exactly been paying attention, but the fact remains that a campaign puttering in its potential energy just got a decidedly kinetic shove. Most importantly, by calling an audible and steering the conversation away from a straight judgment of the incumbent’s economic management, Romney is willing to play on Obama’s terms: a choice election, one centered on the two sides’ divergent visions. But it gives the conservative base, already begging for that chance to vote against Obama, a brand-new political high ground—a dose of substantive seriousness as Plan B.
By now, you’ve probably heard a few things about the congressman from Wisconsin’s 1st District. He’s got a reputation as a thoughtful, moderate budget guru—but that just comes from being the only House Republican not obsessed by ACORN. In fact, when the New York Times’ Nate Silver checked with statistical Congressional voting records, Ryan was found roughly as conservative as the lunatic Michele Bachmann. Ryan’s anti-“We the people” Randian individualism led him to create his master work: an extremist budget plan that the political press called intellectually rigorous mostly because of the D.C. establishment’s debt-reduction mania. In his budget, Ryan slashed Medicaid and other programs for the poor into scraps and replaced Medicare with coupon-like “vouchers.” He’d cut education programs from Head Start to college aid, stripping away nearly 10 million Pell Grant scholarships. Student loan interest rates would double. And after shredding the social safety net, Ryan gives millionaires extra $250,000 tax cuts. Areas that might otherwise unearth savings—defense spending, tax breaks for oil companies seeing record profits—are not touched. (Budget issues aside, Ryan voted to defund Planned Parenthood several times and co-sponsored “personhood” legislation that defines fertilized eggs as human beings and would outlaw some forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization.) And don’t buy the hype that this all comes from a devout libertarian dogma: the man voted for an immense prescription drug benefit and the Wall Street bailout, among other massive government expenses. He’s a fiscal moralist when it suits him politically, nothing more.
Anyway, you can understand why many would see this surprising injection of policy detail into the Romney camp as proof of a transformed race. To be sure, this is now a better-defined contest about Very Important Things. Ryan has shown the skills of a master trompe-l’oeil artist, giving the Romney campaign the appearance of weight and depth. And it’s hard to imagine Ryan would have signed on for the race if he wasn’t assured that his ideas would matter. Independent voters like detail, and Ryan’s proposals suggest a quiver of strategies and solutions. So why is it when I hear Wolf Blitzer declare, “This is going to be a good, serious, substantive debate,” my eyes roll back in my head? The truth is that I don’t see this great and sober debate getting past Base Camp. This oasis of campaign-season rational articulation is just a mirage. From a theoretical perspective, while Ryan’s graphs and charts are nice, the more seductively effective political messaging remains an evocative assault. But even that notwithstanding, I don’t expect Republican ads and speeches to get into cost-savings projections, despite what Wolf and others say—as always, Romney’s de rigueur vapidity will win out.
Hell, the dissembling has already begun. Romney had previously said that if the Ryan budget came to his desk, he’d sign it. But just a few days after announcing Ryan as his VP, Mitt the soulless prevaricator distanced himself from the plan, promising to issue his own blueprint, someday. At a later press conference in Florida, Romney simply refused to explain how his vision for Medicare differed from Ryan’s. If anything, the Romney campaign message is more, not less, muddled than before—not a great indication of a “serious, substantive debate” to come. And this equivocating is likely deliberate; a Republican trying to win on entitlement cuts faces an uphill battle at best. Ryan’s entire philosophy—tax cuts for the rich creates middle-class growth, fiscal sacrifice must come from domestic spending, and so on in its fundamental myopia – is deeply unpopular with most voters. This is why you see anonymous Republican campaign operatives telling Politico how terrified they are, that the risks inherent in the pick could make for a down-ballot disaster. (Of course, I’ve chosen to remain nervous as well. So sue me, I’m a paranoid nudnik who can’t stop reading stuff like how the Ohio GOP managed to reduce early voting in urban districts while expanding it in rural areas. Gah.)
So, no, I’m not buying the hype of a changed campaign. I predict continued noise pollution from here to November. Our system just isn’t set up for serious debates about ideas; we gave that up a long time ago, with increased democracy in the 19th century and its ensuing rise of pamphleteering, speechifying and mudslinging. No, we’ll be watching odious television ads with the word “welfare” next to Obama’s face for the duration, rolled out with the Romney camp’s orgiastic love of spurious sludge. The debates will offer up some measure of actual disagreement, but we’ll be back to homophobic chicken sandwiches or whatever soon enough. In the meantime, political obsessives will dig for substance, like the FBI searching for obscenity in the scratchy garble of “Louie, Louie.” But despite the ideological clash that Paul Ryan is intended to provide, this campaign will propel itself forward in a state of drunken wakefulness—remaining vague, but deeply felt. “Bullshit reigns,” wrote Tom Wolfe, and he’s right. To borrow another phrase, if you want a vision for the next three months, imagine Romney’s desperate rictus grin, saying nothing, stamping on a human face forever.