Can I Stop Writing About Paul Ryan Now?

I was going to quote a bunch of long-time Ryan-watchers. But then I realized I am one.


In case you’ve been living in a cave this week: House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will not run for re-election this fall, and will leave Congress when his term runs out in January.

Looking through this blog’s archives, I see I’ve actually written quite a bit about Ryan. In 2012 when he was Mitt Romney’s VP candidate, I did a Ryan triology:

A few months prior, I had examined a critique of Ryan’s budget proposals from bishops and theologians out of his own Catholic tradition in “Jesus Shrugged: Why Christianity and Ayn Rand Don’t Mix“.

Later, I covered some of the reports he issued as chair of the House Budget Committee: In 2014, his proposals to replace the Great Society anti-poverty programs led to “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?” and “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?” (In both cases, my answer was no. Ryan’s approach to poverty is doomed by his ideological blinders: Capitalism is perfect, the market is fair, and the rich deserve everything they have, so the only causes of poverty he can recognize are the moral failings of poor people and the disincentives created by government anti-poverty programs.)

By now, justifiably or not, I sort of feel like I get Paul Ryan. Based on that, and on no inside information whatsoever, here’s my take on why he’s leaving Congress: First off, the explanation he gave — that with the passage of the Tax Reform Bill “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do” — is nonsense. Ryan’s main focus has always been on the spending side of the equation, not the taxing side. What he “came here to do” was to reform entitlements and reduce government spending’s slice of the economy. He didn’t come to Washington to do what he has, in fact, done: increase defense spending, leave entitlements largely untouched, and create a huge deficit by cutting taxes.

So what is the reason? Ryan looks ahead and sees that leading the House Republican caucus for the next few years, either as Speaker or as Minority Leader, would be the end of his career. He would have to marshal Republican support behind budgets with trillion-dollar deficits, and decide how far he’s willing to go to protect his party’s president as the investigators circle in and Trump’s behavior becomes increasingly indefensible. Either choice — going down with the ship, or trying to pick exactly the right moment to turn on Trump — would be political suicide. Whatever he did, half the Party would think he’s a toady, and the other half would regard him as a back-stabber.

A related issue is that there is no Republican legislative agenda right now. After Trump was elected, repealing ObamaCare was the central focus. When they finally gave up on a full repeal, the focus shifted to tax cuts. The tax cut bill was signed right before Christmas, and what has Congress been working on since? There was an omnibus spending bill that nobody liked, with a big deficit, no clear focus, and no resolution to a lot of controversial issues like DACA or the Great Wall. And what’s next on the do-big-things agenda: Immigration? Infrastructure? Entitlement reform? Even within the Republican caucus, there’s no consensus on any of those issues. So there will be no legislation.

Now picture being a Republican running for Congress this fall. What’s your message? Keep us in power so that we can do … what exactly? That’s why they’ve shifted to a negative focus: We’ll stop the Democrats from impeaching Trump.

Is that a legacy that will hold up going forward? Ryan is still only 48, and he’s undoubtedly looking forward to 2024 or 2028, by which time he hopes the dust will have settled from whatever happens to Trump. Being remembered as the shield that kept Trump in office as long as possible is not going to play well by then.

On the other side, a few Trump critics speculate that Ryan wants to be in a position to challenge Trump in 2020. But that’s wishful thinking. Fighting a civil war to take the Party back is a fool’s mission; even if he succeeded, the defeated Trumpists would never forgive him. Also, it’s very un-Ryanlike; he’s not the kind of guy who puts down a big bet and rolls the dice. No, Ryan’s time will come after the Party of Trump has crashed and burned on its own. Then, he imagines, he can step forward as the savior who will lead the GOP back to sanity. Better yet, the Party will come to him and beg him to become it’s savior, the way it begged him to become Speaker.

For the next few years, the right place for an ambitious Republican to be is off stage, so that’s where Ryan is going. The only thing I think he might regret is that he may already have waited too long. Leaving in January may not be soon enough to avoid the stain of either sticking by Trump or turning on him.


The other thing I noticed while looking back is that one person has consistently been even harder on Ryan than me: Paul Krugman. And he’s not stopping now. In Friday’s column, he reprised the greatest hits of his Ryan criticism: Ryan was never the “serious policy wonk and fiscal hawk” he played on television. In fact, “the single animating principle of everything Ryan did and proposed was to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted”. His long-term budget proposals always relied on the “magic asterisks” of unspecified future spending cuts, plus added revenue from closing unspecified future tax loopholes. So the deficit reductions he touted were always “frauds”.

His reputation was based on the “motivated gullibility” and “ideological affirmative action” of pundits who needed to make a show of being even-handed.

Yet the reality of 21st-century U.S. politics is one of asymmetric polarization in many dimensions. One of these dimensions is intellectual: While there are some serious, honest conservative thinkers, they have no influence on the modern Republican Party. What’s a centrist to do? … The narrative required that the character Ryan played exist, so everyone pretended that he was the genuine article.

Ryan hasn’t criticized Trump’s excesses because … why would he? “Principled conservative” was just another mask he wore.

[I]f you ask why Ryan never took a stand against Trumpian corruption, why he never showed any concern about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, what ever made you think he would take such a stand? Again, if you look at Ryan’s actions, not the character he played to gullible audiences, he has never shown himself willing to sacrifice anything he wants — not one dime — on behalf of his professed principles. Why on earth would you expect him to stick his neck out to defend the rule of law?

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Comments

  • Kathy Dawson  On April 16, 2018 at 4:10 pm

    Maybe Ryan wants to take advantage of his tax cuts. He’s tired of paying taxes on “working-stiff” wages.

    • weeklysift  On April 17, 2018 at 7:55 am

      I’m sure there are lobbying groups that would be happy to have him at a very high salary, and corporations that would give him a nice chunk of change to sit on their boards.

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