This recently became a political problem when Catholic bishops denounced his budget, with one singling out “his favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand.” Last week, Ryan told National Review that he is not an Objectivist, which of course he is not. Objectivists adhere to the full spectrum of Rand’s eclectic beliefs. (Ryan: “I reject her philosophy. It is an atheist philosophy.”) But the thrust of the liberal Catholic critique didn’t center on Rand’s atheism. Where Rand has gained a following among mainstream conservatives like Ryan is her vision of capitalism and class.
Like many Rand devotees, Ryan gravitated to the supply-side-economics wing of the Republican Party, which furnished an economic rationale for policies to which they were already morally sympathetic. The supply-siders remade the Republican Party, replacing its traditional emphasis on balanced budgets with a relentless obsession with cutting tax rates, especially for the most affluent. Reducing taxes, they believed, could unleash untold prosperity; some, like Ryan’s mentor Jack Kemp, even considered spending constraints utterly unnecessary. “I learned economics working for Jack Kemp,” Ryan said in 1999.
Ryan has, retroactively, depicted himself as a dissenter from the fiscal profligacy of the Bush administration, and reporters have mostly accepted his account at face value. (“Ryan watched his party’s leadership inflate the deficit by cutting tax rates like Kemp conservatives while spending like Kardashians,” wrote Time last year.) In reality, Ryan was a staunch ally in Bush’s profligacy, dissenting only to urge Bush to jack up the deficit even more.
“We noticed that the green-eyeshade, austerity wing of the party was afraid of class warfare,” Ryan said during Bush’s first term. “They fear increases in the debt, and they were overlooking issues of growth, opportunity, and free markets.” For those uninitiated in the tribal lingo of Beltway conservatives, this may sound like gibberish. But those inside the conservative subculture invest these buzzwords with deep meaning. “Green eyeshade” is a term of abuse appropriated by the supply-siders to describe Republicans who still cared more about deficit control than cutting taxes. “Growth” and “opportunity” mean tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich, and “class warfare” means any criticism thereof. Ryan’s centrist admirers hear his frequent confessions that both parties have failed as an ideological concession. What he means is that Republicans were insufficiently fanatical in their devotion to cutting taxes for the rich.
In 2001, Ryan led a coterie of conservatives who complained that George W. Bush’s $1.2 trillion tax cut was too small, and too focused on the middle class. In 2003, he lobbied Republicans to pass Bush’s deficit-financed prescription-drug benefit, which bestowed huge profits on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. In 2005, when Bush campaigned to introduce private accounts into Social Security, Ryan fervently crusaded for the concept. He was the sponsor in the House of a bill to create new private accounts funded entirely by borrowing, with no benefit cuts. Ryan’s plan was so staggeringly profligate, entailing more than $2 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, that even the Bush administration opposed it as “irresponsible.”
When Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 elections, they reimposed a budget rule requiring that any new spending or tax cuts be offset by new revenue or spending cuts. Ryan opposed it, preferring to let new spending or tax cuts go on the national credit card. Instead, he continued to endorse Bush’s line that tax cuts were leading us to a glorious new era of prosperity and budget balance. “Higher revenues flowing into the Treasury, as a result of economic and job growth, have given us a real chance to balance the budget,” Ryan announced in 2007. “The president’s budget achieves the important goal of balancing the budget in the near term—without raising taxes,” he wrote in August 2008.
Since Obama took office, Ryan has changed his position on the value of economic stimulus. In 2001, and again in February 2008, he (along with nearly everybody in both parties) endorsed temporary tax cuts in the face of economic downturns. He has since embraced hoary, previously obscure Austrian economic doctrines that warn against putting too much money back in the pockets of citizens suffering through a recession.
Yet Ryan has not altered his opposition to green-eyeshade fiscal conservatism. In 2010, Ryan was a member of a bipartisan committee, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, to formulate a plan to reduce the deficit, but voted against it. (The plan included a tax increase.) Last year, another, informal bipartisan collection of senators released an agreement for a wide-ranging plan to reduce the deficit, combining lower spending with a tax-reform plan designed to increase revenue. It seemed to be gaining momentum quickly until Ryan attacked it, thus dropping what a Republican Senate aide called a “bomb” that blew apart Republican support for the plan.