the national interest

Fanatic, Fraud, Factotum: The Rise and Fall of Paul Ryan

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, January 18, 2018. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Speaker Paul Ryan is retiring before he can lose his majority, and potentially his own seat in Congress, but too late to save his reputation.

The key to Ryan’s rise was that very few people understand who he was or where he came from. Ryan was a conservative-movement ideologue devoted to supply-side economics. During the Bush administration, Ryan demanded larger increases to the budget deficit than those he dismissed as “the green-eyeshade, austerity wing of the party” could swallow. He demanded larger debt-financed tax cuts, and tried to drum up support for a debt-financed Social Security privatization scheme that the Bush administration rejected as fiscally irresponsible. As a back-bench ideologue, he attracted little attention except from a handful of conservatives who agreed with his ideas.

Ryan burst onto the national scene in 2010 because he simultaneously fulfilled two major needs. The Republican Party needed a new leader who could rebrand them after the disaster of the Bush administration. And the national media and the business elite needed a Republican who could serve as a projection of their disappointment with the Obama administration.

And so the image of Paul Ryan that was introduced to the country was as America’s accountant, the Kevin Kline character from Dave, an earnest midwestern boy with a passion for saving the country from fiscal calamity. The kind of nightmare Ryan imagined was a very peculiar dystopian fantasy. Ryan believed the Obama administration was undermining the moral foundations of American society by redistributing too much income from the makers to the takers. As he explained in 2009, shortly before his star turn (and when he could scarcely have even predicted it):

But by 2010, Ryan had become the face and the brain of his party. And the national news media and the business elite had something different in mind when it came to fiscal calamity. They feared the budget deficit, which Ryan had spent his career working to increase, was too large, and they believed bipartisanship, which Ryan had spent his career ignoring, was the necessary solution. And so Ryan was cast to the country as the champion of bipartisan cooperation to solve the debt crisis, which was understood by these elites to be the country’s foremost problem. Here is the slick, high-production-value Ryan defining the crisis in elite-friendly, green-eyeshade terms:

Ryan inhabited this peculiar role because the news media, having concluded that the Obama administration had forsaken bipartisanship and irresponsibly inflated the deficit, desperately needed someone to play the part it had cast. The fact that Ryan personally and repeatedly undermined every single bipartisan negotiation to reduce the deficit — opposing the Bowles-Simpson plan, direct negotiations with the administration, and a compromise Obama hoped to strike using the fiscal cliff as a prod — did not shake loose his reputation.

What finally killed off the myth of Paul Ryan was Donald Trump. Here was a figure who absolutely revolted the same elites Ryan had cultivated. In the face of something as large and obvious and grotesque as Trump, Ryan could no longer straddle the gap between his base and the national media. He tried, for a while, by publicly standing behind his party’s nominee while signaling his discomfort sub rosa.

Once Trump assumed the presidency, the contradiction became impossible to ignore or manage. Ryan submitted himself fully to the president. As House Speaker, Ryan has played an indispensable role in insulating Trump from public and legal accountability. Ryan has buried votes that would compel the release of Trump’s tax returns, and unleashed Devin Nunes to run a counter-investigation designed to discredit the Department of Justice and ultimately clear the way for Trump to halt the probe of Russian interference on his behalf.

This has not gone the exact way Ryan would have liked. In his perfect world, Republicans would run on tax cuts, carry out deep cuts to social insurance programs, and everyone in America would be devouring editorials from The Wall Street Journal. But political reality demands compromises. And those constraints have forced Ryan to choose what really matters to him: the protection of the makers from the predations of the takers.

The critics who flay Ryan as a coward have never understood that his actions are a form of idealism. To Ryan, the greatest danger to liberty lies not in a president who defies the rule of law but in high tax rates and a functioning social safety net. When Ryan speaks with pride about the policy accomplishments he helped carry out with Trump, he is not spinning. In Ryan’s worldview, he has struck a powerful blow for liberty against the socialist hordes. Ryan leaves his endangered majority convinced he has done his job well. It is a triumph of his own propaganda that so few people believe he is actually sincere about this.

Fanatic, Fraud, Factotum: The Rise and Fall of Paul Ryan