I missed Ross Douthat’s column on Paul Ryan last week while moving. There are some fair points in it, but this seemed a bit off:
But more than most politicians Ryan has always laid claim to a mix of moral and substantive authority; more than most he has sold himself to the right’s intelligentsia and the centrist media as one of Washington’s men of principle. And both that authority and that brand are being laid waste in this campaign.
It’s true that Ryan has often presented himself this way, but it’s never been clear to me why others have accepted it. Ryan’s reputation for “moral and substantive authority” has always been overblown, and believing in it has required ignoring or explaining away a large part of his record in the House before 2011. He was a reliable vote for extremely fiscally irresponsible administration policies during the Bush years, so his “moral and substantive authority” on fiscal issues in particular was never that great. Ryan has claimed that he was “miserable” casting some of those votes, but it didn’t stop him from casting them. His turn as a post-crash debt scold marked a complete reversal from being a supporter of a new, entirely unfunded entitlement when that was what a Republican president wanted. Like many of his colleagues, Ryan has wanted credit for fiscal conservatism when his party didn’t control the White House, but was perfectly content to cast that aside under a Republican president. He is hardly alone in doing this, but that is what he’s done.
What the present campaign has done is to force many of Ryan’s fans to acknowledge that he isn’t the deeply principled wonk that they want him to be, but rather a more compromising Republican politician not so different from the rest. Ryan has backed many bad policies out of political calculation in the past, and now he is halfheartedly supporting a bad nominee out of a different calculation, but the willingness to go along with party leadership remains unchanged. No doubt his reliability as a party man is a major reason that he is in the Speaker’s office now, but there should never have been any illusions about how he got there. That is nothing to boast about, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Ryan’s record. If anyone was expecting “a steeliness in the face of challenges and threats and foes” from Ryan, I can only assume that he forgot the first decade of Ryan’s political career.