When Paul Ryan accepted the Republican Party’s nomination to serve as Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election, he said, “I have never seen opponents so silent about their record, and so desperate to keep their power. ... Fear and division are all they’ve got left.”
And yet it is those exact words that define Ryan’s tenure as speaker of the House: “silent,” “desperate,” “fear” and “division.”
Joshua Green’s 2017 book, “A Devil’s Bargain,” recounts then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon characterizing Ryan as a “limp-d***** motherf***** who was born in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.” Translation: He’s weak; someone who can be bullied into submission.
Turns out Bannon was spot-on.
Ryan’s legacy is that of a would-be leader who was afraid to use his voice to save the GOP from the fear and division of the alt-right. His silence enabled the hijacking of the party by a group of racist, homophobic and xenophobic extremists who could care less about traditional Republican and conservative orthodoxy.
Ryan used to be the picture of what it meant to be a fiscal conservative. In his Republican National Convention acceptance speech, he declared that, “In this generation, a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time. … We need to stop spending money we don’t have.”
“What brings down Empires ― past and future ― is debt,” he warned.
2012 Paul Ryan would have felt right at home in the House Freedom Caucus, a group started in 2015 by the most conservative members of the Republican conference who led a successful revolt to push out John Boehner and pave the way for Ryan to become speaker.
And yet, as Ryan prepares to exit-stage-left, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported this week that by 2020, the federal government’s annual budget deficit will grow to more than $1 trillion ― a result of the massive tax cuts that he helped shepherd into law. The CBO projects that by 2028 the national debt will hit $33 trillion and that debt held by the public will reach 96 percent of gross domestic product.
But that illustrates the paradox of Ryan (and the Republican Party at large). He’s someone who time and again says one thing but ultimately is unwilling to confront the extreme voices from within the party or make the stands necessary to live up to his own stated convictions.
In February, Ryan decisively announced “to anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not. We will bring a solution to the floor ― one that the president will sign.”
On April 1, President Donald Trump tweeted, “NO MORE DACA DEAL!”
Ryan responded with silence.
When asked on Wednesday about the possibility that Trump might fire special counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Ryan continued with his familiar head-in-sand charade, saying, “I have no reason to believe that’s going to happen. I have assurances that’s not because I’ve been talking to people in the White House about it.”
I’m reminded of the classic line Harvey Dent utters in “The Dark Knight”: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Ryan had a choice. He could have spoken up against the fear-mongering divisiveness of Trump’s Republican party. He could have stayed true to his own ideological compass. Sure, he may have lost the speakership, but at least he would have gone down standing for something.
Instead, he cowered and caved. In 2016, he gave away his party’s best chance to reject Trump-ism. By avoiding the fight, Ryan has left his conference on the verge of being wiped out in November. More consequentially, his weakness has brought our nation to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
2012 Paul Ryan warned us about a political party so desperate to preserve their base of power that they rely on the instruments of fear and division. That’s exactly where he helped lead the Republican Party of 2018.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist. He is a former spokesman and senior adviser for former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Follow him on Twitter at @kurtbardella.