the national interest

Why Paul Ryan Opposes Divisive Politics

House Speaker Paul Ryan Gives Speech On The State Of American Politics
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

At various points in his career, Paul Ryan has toggled between two different versions of his political identity. One iteration, developed under mentors like Sam Brownback and Jack Kemp, under whom Ryan served as a staffer, emphasizes the transformative power of supply-side tax cuts, unleashing massive wealth that will trickle down from rich to poor. Kemp himself believed the supply-side gospel with such fervor that he never lost his conviction that Republicans could bring the good word to the most skeptical constituencies — poor people, racial minorities — and win them over. At other times Ryan has fashioned himself as an austere deficit hawk, tapping urgently on the accounting books while warning America away from insolvency.

The latter version is what first made Ryan the famous national figure he is today. Ryan’s warnings of an imminent Greek-style debt crisis made him simultaneously attractive to the financial and political Establishment, where the conventional wisdom in 2009 through 2012 deemed deficit reduction the country’s most urgent priority, and among freaked-out conservatives everywhere, who believed that Barack Obama was plunging the country into an Ayn Rand nightmare. The deficit has receded, the economy has recovered, and, most pointedly, Obama’s reelection persuaded many Republicans they needed a new message to forge a majority coalition.

Since that 2012 defeat, Ryan has toggled back to his Kempian version. Ryan’s ballyhooed speech today about the state of American politics mainly reiterated the change in message he has already executed. Ryan apologized for having divided society into “makers” and “takers.” (He first began apologizing for this two years ago.) He also endorsed a more high-minded and generous tone of public discourse — something he has done many times before, though which, in the current atmosphere, carries an implicit rebuke against his party’s presidential front-runner.

But the rebuke, while better than a full surrender, is hardly a frontal repudiation. More important, Ryan has not altered the policy mix that he once described as a defense of the makers against the takers. He continues to favor the same combination of very large tax cuts for the affluent and very large cuts in social spending for the poor. He simply places more emphasis on his belief that the beneficiaries of social transfers tend to be harmed by having their work ethic sapped.

Surely Ryan, like Kemp, believes that the policies he advocates would bring prosperity to all. And a Republican politics driven by such an idealistic conviction is surely preferable to a Trumpian one that castigates its targets as losers and criminals. But Ryan’s version of political uplift has distinctly self-interested side effects. In his speech, Ryan urges, “Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles.

Unity rather than division sounds very nice. Ryan has a specific meaning for that concept, though, that would seem to preclude any challenge to his ideas. In a recent interview with John Harwood, Ryan made it clear that he believes President Obama practices the kind of “identity politics” he deems bad for the country:

The kind of politics that I abhor, that I reject, which I think the president has played very successfully, is identity politics. Politics that I think, at the end of the day, is paternalistic and condescending. Politics that speaks to people in ways that divide them from one another, that divides people in this country.

Ryan further explained that even consulting distributional estimates, which measures the effect any given policy has on people at different income levels, is unacceptable:

I think most people don’t think, “John’s success comes at my expense.” Or, “my success comes at your expense.” People don’t think like that. People want to know the deck is fair. Bernie Sanders talks about that stuff. That’s not who we are.

If you favor policies that would maximize the income of a very tiny proportion of the electorate while coming at the direct expense of subsidies for a far larger proportion of the electorate, then any frank analysis of the distributional analysis of your policies is highly inconvenient. The problem is not only that it’s “divisive”; it’s that it divides the electorate in such a way as to leave Ryan with the smaller half.