WASHINGTON ― Paul Ryan was furious.
He’d been caught in a trap ― lured into an auditorium by the promise of a speech about fiscal responsibility. Instead, President Barack Obama was lecturing the crowd about why it would be wrong to balance the budget by impoverishing old people. Obama didn’t mention Ryan’s name, but in Ryan’s mind, the president might as well have addressed the speech to him.
Everybody could see Ryan, just sitting there in the front row of an auditorium at George Washington University. One of his colleagues leaned over and asked if they should leave. No, Ryan said. They should stay; they were being watched. He had noticed a photographer with a camera mounted on a unipod, its long lens pointed straight at him. He sat rigidly in his chair.
It had all been a setup.
To Ryan, Obama’s breach of decorum in April 2011 ― in which he lightly criticized Ryan’s budget while calling for entitlement reform himself ― was Exhibit A in the case against Obama. According to Ryan, it meant Obama was unwilling to work across party lines to solve policy problems. It was an affront to fiscal responsibility and the Beltway Norms. A stunning contrast between the two men ― one a partisan politician and the other a serious policy wonk.
“His false attacks were offensive, even by the low standards for discourse and civility in Washington, D.C.,” Ryan recalled in his 2014 book, in which he devoted eight pages to the incident.
The story has been retold in at least three books, with Ryan denouncing Obama’s “demagoguery” each time.
In retrospect, of course, in light of the current president’s constant depredations ― against civility, against the discourse, even against Ryan himself ― Obama’s speech was the political equivalent of using the wrong fork at a dinner party. The idea that the speech amounted to some great offense, by the standard Ryan has set not even six years later, is patently absurd.
Whereas Obama didn’t even mention Ryan by name in the infamous speech, President Donald Trump has repeatedly insulted Ryan directly, calling the House speaker “weak and ineffective” and a “Boy Scout” and saying he “knows nothing,” though Trump has more recently said he has come to appreciate Ryan “like a fine wine.”
(Reminder: Trump doesn’t drink.)
While Ryan made a habit of bashing Obama ― his reaction to Obama’s last State of the Union address was to say Obama “degrades the presidency” because Obama warned against then-candidate Trump’s divisive rhetoric ― he has famously stood by Trump, greeting the president’s near-daily embarrassments with cheery unawareness. Even when Ryan couldn’t avoid Trump’s scandals, he continued to praise Trump as “thoughtful,” “refreshing” and “exquisite.”
It’s all part of the fiction that Ryan chooses to live in ― a fiction in which Trump is restoring honor to the presidency and his behavior is to be downplayed, dismissed or outright ignored. And it’s that blithe fiction, contrasted with our graphic, Trump-y reality, for which Ryan should be remembered.
When Ryan leaves office in January, he will not have balanced the budget or fixed Congress or solved poverty or left our politics smarter or less divided. Instead, during his three-year tenure as speaker, the deficit has nearly doubled. The procedural problems in Congress are more daunting. Poverty isn’t much different. And our politics are more partisan, less ideological, than maybe ever before.
The version of Paul Ryan that he and his staff tried to project for years ― the image of a squeaky-clean numbers guy, rolling up his sleeves, solving tough policy problems ― is a sham. According to a number of polls, many people now recognize him as a monumental partisan, a politician who won a reputation as a wonk because he was able to memorize a few lines from an actuarial table and then promptly ignore his own pledges to balance the budget when he had the chance. Ryan is the man who, perhaps more than anybody else, normalized Trump, who led reluctant Republicans back to Trump, who went along with the president even when he knew he shouldn’t and traded his dignity for a tax cut.
This week, Ryan and his office released a six-part video series on his decades-long quest to reform the tax code. But he didn’t reform our tax code. When all the new guidance is issued, the 40,000-page tax code is likely to be even longer. He simply cut taxes ― or, at least, he didn’t stand in the way.
It turned out that cutting taxes by $1.5 trillion wasn’t all that hard, as long as “conservatives” were on board with not paying for tax cuts. The grand irony of “tax reform” is that, for all the credit Ryan and his staff try to give him for the bill, the final legislation was closer to the principles that Freedom Caucus leaders like Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) laid out: a corporate rate at 20 percent, a bigger standard deduction and cuts that weren’t paid for.
Ryan wanted a bill that was at least mostly revenue-neutral (it ended up costing more than a trillion dollars over 10 years), that would allow individuals to fill out their tax returns on a postcard (that didn’t happen) and that had a corporate rate closer to 25 percent (it ended up at 21 percent).
He almost blew up the tax bill by insisting on a border adjustment tax to offset some of the cuts. It wasn’t until he gave up on the BAT ― a tarifflike tax that would have increased prices on imports and also, theoretically, increased the value of the dollar ― that tax reform became a reality.
And it was the Senate that played the biggest role in shaping the tax bill, with Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) deciding how much debt was acceptable to rack up. In conference, when differences between the two chambers’ versions are resolved, legislators took the Senate version on a number of important provisions ― pass-through income, international regulations, the child tax credit ― and ditched a bunch of politically perilous, revenue-raising ideas from the House, like ending deductions on medical expenses and student loans.
Ryan’s signature achievement of tax reform is neither actually his nor actually an achievement. Yes, the economy is doing well. But there was low unemployment and economic growth before the tax cuts. A year after it was enacted, the bill remains unpopular. The stock market has basically run sideways since the GOP’s tax bill was enacted ― the S&P 500 is down on the year ― and wages for workers have barely grown.
The tax cuts were supposed to spur investment and put more money in everyone’s pocket. Instead, they prompted a small round of one-time bonuses, a huge number of stock buybacks and deficits that will persist for decades.
And yet, in true Ryan form, he seeks out another round of feting, when most politicians would have the self-awareness to quietly exit out the back.
It’s possible that he will hand over the speaker’s gavel to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during a partial government shutdown, because he and other Republicans refuse to level with Trump and tell him he’s not getting his border wall. A short-term funding bill, looking more likely by the hour, would be more of the same avoidance. It would be stage one in the grieving process.
But denial has been one of Ryan’s favorite strategies with Trump. Ryan has been satisfied to try to influence government and the president at the periphery. When Ryan became aware recently that there were more than 10,000 unused work visas, he pushed through legislation making sure Irish nationals would have access to those visas.
When Trump said he might try to end birthright citizenship, Ryan suggested such a move would have to come from Congress, which prompted Trump to say that Ryan “knows nothing” about the issue and should be focused on holding the GOP majority ― something Ryan wasn’t able to do. The speaker oversaw the largest Republican losses in 44 years.
Ryan never responded to Trump’s diss. The direct insults from Trump never seemed to rankle Ryan the same way Obama’s indirect slights appeared to bother him.
A simple truth of Ryan’s career is that he spent every day fighting to help people who didn’t need help. It was always about cutting taxes, and as big of a game as he talked on the debt, when he had the chance to do something about entitlements or spending, he cowered from the challenge.
As part of his farewell tour, he said in November that his two biggest regrets were failing to tackle immigration reform and not addressing the growing national debt. He also theorized that history would be kind to his speakership and the GOP Congress he ruled over, partly because of the tax cuts that passed under his watch.
But there’s no evidence that the tax cuts are getting more popular or becoming more effective, and there’s no indication that Republicans are getting more serious about debt.
To take the issue of debt seriously for a moment ― something Republicans (and Democrats) don’t do ― we’ve incurred enough debt at this point that the interest payments on our $21 trillion hole will ensure that we never see a balanced budget again without massive spending cuts and tax increases.
For Ryan, this might not be much of a contradiction. Cutting taxes is core to the Republican mission, while the debt is a political tool used to bash Democrats and to justify welfare cuts. The media and the public just fell for the GOP ruse.
“History will not be kind to a president who, when it came time to confront our generation’s defining challenge, chose to duck and run,” Ryan said of Obama after the president once again criticized the House GOP budget in 2012.
But when it was his party controlling Congress and the White House, during a time of economic prosperity, when Washington has traditionally looked to realign the federal budget, Ryan didn’t shrink the deficit; he nearly doubled it, through a combination of spending increases and tax cuts. Legislation enacted since Trump took office will add $2.7 trillion to the national debt. The tax cuts and spending bills enacted in fiscal 2018 alone will widen 2019’s deficit by $445 billion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. And the yearly deficit, which was $585 billion in fiscal 2016 ― the year Ryan took the speakership ― will be roughly $1 trillion when he leaves office.
When Ryan announced his retirement from Congress in April, he cheered the spending increases for the military that Republicans locked into spending agreements. Those Pentagon plus-ups, paired with domestic spending increases to appease Democrats, have ballooned the deficit.
In 2011, conservatives in Congress refused to go along with increases to spending or the debt ceiling without a plan to restrain the deficit. What they came up with was the Budget Control Act, which set caps for defense and nondefense spending for the next 10 years. Except lawmakers have refused to live by those caps. Congress has honored the spending limits exactly zero times. The Pentagon particularly seems unwilling to abide by the limits. And Republicans like Ryan cheer on the military budget increases, even as the Pentagon has never completed an audit.
Ryan entered the speakership by saying he wanted to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force. We’ve justified more than three dozen military operations in more than a dozen countries using the overly broad authorization from 2001.
“It would be a good sign for American foreign policy to have a new one updating our AUMF,” Ryan said in December 2015.
But he spent the next three years blocking a new AUMF, saying he wouldn’t allow debate on any bill that would restrict the ability of the military to fight.
Just last week, Ryan attached special instructions to a rule for the farm bill that would waive provisions in the War Powers Resolution so he could block debate on a resolution about U.S. support for a war in Yemen ― a war that has created what the United Nations called “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.” An estimated 85,000 Yemeni children have died from starvation associated with the war, and an additional 17 million Yemenis are at risk of malnutrition.
Ryan’s efforts to block debate on war are entirely consistent with his actions as speaker but totally inconsistent with his message as he took the gavel. He said he wanted to return to regular order, that he wanted to allow debate on bills and amendments on the House floor.
Instead, there was one open rule during the entirety of his speakership, meaning there was only one bill to which members could offer any amendment they wanted, as long as it pertained to the bill and wasn’t written on the fly. He oversaw what may go down as the most closed Congress of all time. And rather than address immigration or entitlement reform or war or guns or children being separated from their parents at the border or a bill protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation, Ryan was satisfied to use the House to pass uncontroversial bills renaming post offices or selling federal land to pump up the number of bills the House passed and Trump signed.
The Republican calls to read the bill ― calls that helped propel them to the majority in 2010 ― have been replaced with Ryan ramming through a 2,232-page bill funding the government 17 hours after leaders released the text. Amazingly, on the same day the House passed that bill, he said he had done “a phenomenal job” restoring regular order.
On Wednesday, Ryan took to the Great Hall in the Library of Congress for yet another goodbye speech. It was almost exactly three years since Ryan delivered a speech in that room at the beginning of his speakership. But what was supposed to be a farewell was really more of the same calls he made in the past for reform ― on debt, on immigration and on poverty.
As Vox recently remarked in a headline, “Paul Ryan really wishes the House speaker would fix immigration and the debt.” Ryan is the speaker who didn’t seem to realize that he had the power to do things, that he could do more than cut taxes and that achieving results would take more than grandiose speeches echoing hollowly through the Great Hall in the Library of Congress.
One particular issue that Ryan simply seemed to give up on was poverty.
After the 2012 presidential election, when he was mocked for a soup kitchen photo op in which he seemed to be washing pots and pans that were already clean, Ryan launched himself into what he called a “poverty tour.” He traveled the country visiting nonprofit organizations that sought to rehabilitate poor people with criminal histories or drug problems.
He came up with a bunch of proposals that were basically a rebranding of welfare cuts, and he built his case for cutting assistance to the poor on a false claim: that the War on Poverty had failed.
That is all consistent with the Ryan we’ve all come to know. But one of the reasons he was able to con so many people for so long was that he wasn’t incapable of coming up with an interesting idea from time to time. He had elements of self-reflection and regret, like when he said in early 2016 that it was wrong of him to have used the frame “makers and takers.”
In 2014, instead of simply claiming that government programs that help poor people actually make them worse off ― and that therefore antipoverty spending should be cut ― Ryan did something different. He said the government should hire case managers who could work with poor people to create a “customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty.”
Case management was the centerpiece of his proposal to reform the federal government’s antipoverty programs into an “opportunity grant.” The proposal and the poverty tour figured prominently in his 2014 book, “The Way Forward,” which is the type of book politicians write when they’re thinking about running for president. He portrayed poverty policy as a consistent area of concern during his career, ever since his days working as an aide to Jack Kemp, a former congressman who called himself a “bleeding-heart conservative.”
But commentators from both sides thought the idea of a “customized life plan” was weird. And so Ryan backed away. “We’re saying this is one of the things we recommend, but give the states the ability to try other ideas,” he told HuffPost in 2014.
After he became speaker and Trump became president, Ryan had a chance to make his poverty agenda a reality. Instead, he used his time and political capital trying to take health care from millions of poor people ― remember, the House GOP health care plan included $834 billion in cuts to Medicaid ― and then passing a tax cut. He gave up on poverty.
He said Wednesday that solving poverty will require “a great rethinking of how we help the most vulnerable among us.” And without a shred of self-awareness or irony, he urged his Republican colleagues to not “let this issue drift from your consciousness.”
The Myth Of Paul Ryan
The sincerity with which Paul Ryan believed in the myth of Paul Ryan was perhaps why it was so effective. During his speech Wednesday, he decried how outrage had become a “brand,” how we all needed to disregard “the noise.”
But what Ryan deems noise and what he thinks warrants outrage have a distinctly partisan slant. When Trump tweeted that he was considering revoking the security clearances of his political enemies, Ryan said Trump was “just trolling.” When Trump attacks fellow Republicans or when he lies outright or suggests breaking into the Democratic National Committee, that’s just to be ignored.
“All this stuff you see on a daily basis on Twitter this and Twitter that — forget about it,” Ryan said in October 2017.
Except that was not how Ryan treated Obama. Ryan said Obama was the nation’s worst president. Ryan relentlessly attacked Obama and took horrible offense during the 2011 speech in which Obama agreed that the nation needed to tackle entitlements.
In Bob Woodward’s telling, “Ryan felt betrayed. He’d expected an olive branch. What he got was the finger.”
What was the appalling criticism that Obama had made?
One of the most egregious insults was that Obama noted Ryan’s budget would transfer Medicare to a voucher system. “And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy the insurance that’s available in the open marketplace, well, tough luck — you’re on your own,” Obama said.
And how did the Congressional Budget Office describe Ryan’s budget? “Under the proposal, most elderly people who would be entitled to premium support payments would pay more for their health care than they would pay under the current Medicare system.”
Obama wasn’t wrong, though he would later tell Woodward he thought he made a mistake by embarrassing Ryan. Obama had accurately described what Ryan’s proposal would do. Ryan was just upset that the reality of his budget didn’t measure up to his inflated self-image, of a man whose ideas transcend politics, of a should-be president delivering speeches at a prestigious university or in the marbled Great Hall of the Library of Congress.