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What Does Paul Ryan Mean?

He's the symbol of a failed Republican Party

On any other day, the announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan that he intends to retire at the end of this term would be staggering news. It’s not that it’s unexpected — Washington insiders have been expecting this for some time — but rather what it symbolizes.

Ben Domenech has a good analysis piece up today. Excerpts:

Polls today clearly show the GOP is now President Trump’s party. It was truly his party from the moment he won the nomination, but now it is even moreso. His approval ratings are higher now than they were on Election Day. His ideology has not thoroughly supplanted Ryan’s – there are still free traders and free enterprise folks in the mix, supply sider Larry Kudlow is running the White House’s economic policy, and Republicans still give lip service to entitlement reform (mostly for the poor, not the old – they know where their bread is buttered). But Ryan’s departure is a departure for Ryanism as well – a clear-eyed look at the nation’s finances which deems them utterly out of control and in need of a sharp correction, a correction that has not and will not come.

It’s easy to forget how Paul Ryan was vilified by the media. For a politician with so few marks against him – the worst thing one could say was that he suggested staffers read Ayn Rand – Ryan was treated incredibly unfairly in 2012 as a vice presidential candidate, with no moment greater than when his policies were described inaccurately by Martha Raddatz in a terribly run debate with no question was even asked about his signature Medicare reform policies.

Ryan’s response to this trend was to grow frustrated, and irritated, but also to carefully and politely explain his policy perspective in more detail, to try and convince his interviewers, to build momentum for the type of Republican Party he thought the nation needed. Donald Trump’s response to this was to punch the media in the face, repeatedly. The voters let us know which response they prefer.

Jonathan Chait, writing from the left, has a much less charitable assessment of Ryan. Excerpts:

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.


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.

And now the House will still probably flip to the Democrats.

Whatever the truth about Paul Ryan is, it cannot be denied that the GOP is no longer a place for politicians like him. It was easy to imagine back in 2012, when he was the vice presidential nominee, that one day the young, smart, personable Ryan would one day become president. That today, six years later, we are witnessing the end of Paul Ryan’s career, is a stunning testimony to the destruction Donald Trump delivered to the Republican Party establishment.

As Paul Waldman writes, the fall of Paul Ryan is also a symbol of the GOP’s inability to govern. Excerpts:

After fifteen months with total control of the government, Ryan and his colleagues achieved almost nothing, and he’s now decided that there’s nothing more to do.

In his press conference this morning, Ryan explained his departure this way: “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids aren’t getting any younger.” So what did he accomplish?

For years, Ryan has presented himself as someone deeply concerned with fiscal discipline, committed to getting America’s books in order. As anyone with any sense realized, this was a scam: Like all Republicans, he used the deficit as a bludgeon against Democratic presidents, then forgot all about it when there was a Republican in office.

At the same time, Ryan, a lifelong admirer of Ayn Rand, the philosopher of selfishness, dreamed of destroying the safety net, eviscerating Medicaid, privatizing Medicare, slashing food stamps, and generally making life in America more cruel and unpleasant for all those who aren’t wealthy.

But as Paul Krugman observed, Ryan failed at both his pretend goal and his real goal. He’s leaving office after setting the deficit on a path to exceed $1 trillion in 2020, and yet he failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and didn’t even bother to wage an assault on Medicare, almost certainly because he knew how disastrous it would be for his party.

So what does he mean when he says “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do”? He can only mean the tax cut Republicans passed last year. In other words, engineering a giant giveaway to corporations and the wealthy was enough for Paul Ryan to say My work here is done.


Conservatives will have a few things to show for this period of absolute control of the federal government, especially a large group of federal judges President Trump has appointed. But given how high their hopes were for a legislative revolution, it’s a pathetic record. Don’t forget that all through 2016, Republicans — none more so than Paul Ryan — said that despite the fact that their voters nominated a vulgar, infantile, corrupt buffoon to lead their party, they simply had to stand by him because they wanted the chance to pass all that conservative legislation and have it signed by a Republican president.

But now that corporations got their tax cut, it was all worth it, right?

Longtime readers know that the door slammed hard and permanently on me and the Republican Party when, after Obergefell, I learned firsthand that the Congressional Republicans — led by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell — had no intention at all of trying to pass any legislation intending to protect conservative Christians and others on the religious liberty front. They had other priorities. That was when I knew beyond a doubt that the Congressional Republicans would sacrifice us for the sake of pleasing Big Business.

Almost one year ago, Ryan T. Anderson wrote about three things the Republican Congress could do to protect religious liberty: pass the Russell Amendment to the big defense budget bill, pass the Conscience Protection Act, and pass the First Amendment Defense Act. 

The Russell Amendment was stripped out of the defense bill in the Senate in 2017. So it’s off the table. But President Trump promised to sign both FADA and the CPA if Congress sent them to his desk.

So what has our Republican Congress done with these religious liberty bills?

Paul Ryan has endorsed the Conscience Protection Act. It has been sitting there in the House since January 24, 2017 — and has gone nowhere. A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate.

Rep. Raul Labrador introduced FADA into the House in the previous Congress. The bill died. Sen. Mike Lee introduced FADA in the previous Congress, where it also died. He re-introduced a slightly changed version of FADA in the Senate a month ago. It is forecast to have very little chance of passage. 

If the Democrats either house of Congress this fall, there is zero chance that either of these vital religious liberty bills will ever pass. And if we cannot get meaningful religious liberty legislation passed under these circumstances, we never will. I mean, look, the country has a Republican president who said he would sign these bills, but the Republican Congress will not send them to him. But hey, tax cuts, amirite?!

Oh, wait. This just in:

Retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R) said his vote on the GOP tax law could be one of the worst of his career if estimates that it will add $1.9 trillion to deficits over a decade prove correct.

“If it ends up costing what has been laid out here, it could well be one of the worst votes I’ve made,” he said at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate that produced the figure.

“I hope that is not the case, I hope there’s other data to assist, whether it’s jobs or growth or whatever,” Corker added.

The Republican Party cannot govern. At least people like me can take consolation in the possibility — possibility — that the judges it has approved in this Congress will afford us some measure of protection in the years to come. Still, what a sorry lot these Congressional Republicans are. They have all the power in Washington, and don’t know what to do with it. Given how volatile US politics are now, I wouldn’t bet money on the Democrats retaking the House, not this far out. But if the Republicans hold on to it, it will not be because they deserve to.

To be fair to Paul Ryan, the failures of his party are by no means entirely his fault. As Jim Geraghty points out:

Those scoffing “good riddance” to Ryan now probably ought to look back at John Boehner and Dennis Hastert. Ryan’s younger, a better communicator, more telegenic and even more of a policy wonk than his predecessors and most of his potential successors.

It’s hard to lead the House Republicans in this time of fragmentation and dissolution. I hope whoever succeeds Ryan is better at it than he has been. Let’s say that Paul Ryan is the Bob Michel of the GOP 2018. Who is the Newt Gingrich? That’s just it: there is no Newt Gingrich. There is nobody with a political vision (idealistic or tactical), or a cohesive force. There is no there there. It’s just Trump’s personality, which could mean anything, depending on the day.



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