The myth of Paul Ryan is in serious trouble. This was likely inevitable, but it certainly is on stark display in the debate among Republicans over his “Ryancare” bill, which was supposed to be the “repeal and replace Obamacare” answer to all conservatives’ dreams. Quite obviously, Ryan’s bill fell far short of this lofty goal. It is currently being savaged from all sides within the Republican caucus alone. But beyond the bill’s likely failure, the myth surrounding Ryan is also on life support.
The Ryan myth began with a book about three Republican “young guns” who were the best and the brightest of their generation and who seemed destined for leadership positions within the party. Ryan was lauded along with Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy as the future of the Republican Party, but ― importantly ― this was before the Tea Party phenomenon. The phrase “young guns” itself projects a certain cowboy swagger, a manly Reaganesque image of a gun-totin’ fighter for the cause. But again, that was before the Tea Party was launched. Nowadays, Ryan doesn’t seem to have quite the swagger of a “young gun” anymore, because that role has been co-opted by the Tea Partiers themselves.
But the Ryan myth didn’t end there. Ryan was supposed to be the wonkiest of the wonky, a real numbers guy who understood all the details and could call them up from memory with ease ― a counterpart to Bill Clinton’s wonkiness, in a lot of ways. Before he took the reins of the House, he was in charge of the Republicans’ efforts to hammer the federal budget into their preferred conservative mold. The budgets he came up with were Draconian in their treatment of the poor, but not a whole lot of people noticed because the House budget bills were routinely ignored by the Senate. Ryan won kudos from within his own party, but didn’t actually influence policy all that much.
This was the perfect position for the Ryan myth to thrive. Without any real-world consequences, Ryan was held up to be a genius at putting the numbers together in an orthodox conservative fashion. Nobody complained much, because nobody was really affected by Ryan’s dream budgets, to put it another way.
But then the Tea Partiers essentially forced Speaker of the House John Boehner to step aside. Boehner had tried herding these particular cats without much success, and eventually he got tired of beating his head against the Tea Party’s brick wall. The budget negotiations had broken down multiple times in spectacular fashion (see: fiscal cliff, government shutdown) because the Tea Partiers refused to ever budge one tiny inch on their outlandish demands. It was their way or the highway, and eventually Boehner chose the highway ― all the way back home to Ohio.
Paul Ryan was then very reluctantly drafted to take Boehner’s place. He really didn’t want the job, but all the other House Republicans told him he was the only possible person who could get things done in the House. He was needed by his party, so eventually he (still very reluctantly) stepped up.
Since that time, the House has not noticeably gotten any more productive. But also since that time, they haven’t had very many public intraparty battles, by design. Ryan began his tenure by strongarming everyone into kicking all the big budget decisions far down the road ― after the 2016 elections, in other words. This avoided any contentious Tea Party revolts during the campaign, and in that respect it worked perfectly. That was then, but now all those deadlines are beginning to loom once again. And the Tea Party problem hasn’t gone away in the meantime (although they did re-brand themselves the “Freedom Caucus” for some inexplicable reason).
What this means is that 2017 is going to see a return to the same old knife fights within the Republican caucus. The debt ceiling is going to have to be raised, the budget is going to have to be voted on, and on top of that Republicans are itching to “reform the tax code” (which, of course, is a euphemism for “give enormous tax cuts to the wealthiest of the wealthy, once again”).
The Ryan myth was that he was the knight in shining armor who was going to be able to get all Republicans to agree on actual bills (with actual numbers), for the good of the party and for the betterment of the conservative agenda. He was the uber-wonk. He could reach out to the Tea Party faction and convince them to get with the Ryan program. That myth is soon going to be revealed to be nothing more than a fantasy.
The entire Ryancare fiasco is informative. Ryan put out his favored bill, and fully expected Republicans to fall into line behind him, while he bravely fought off the slings and arrows from the Democrats. That was the plan, at any rate. They were going to rush the bill through both houses with lightning speed, and prove to the country that they were incredibly capable of governing, now that they had a Republican in the White House. It has only been a week and a half since the bill was publicly unveiled, and already Ryancare is in deep trouble ― within his own Republican ranks.
Ryancare is being attacked by the Tea Partiers (for not being sufficiently cruel to the poor) and by moderate Republicans (for already being too obviously cruel to the poor). Ryan may not even be able to scrape up enough votes to pass the bill in the House, and even if he does manage that Herculean feat, it has already been pronounced “dead on arrival” in the Senate ― by Republicans. Ryan, so far, is refusing to change his bill in any meaningful way, but the opposition from both the far right and the center within his party means that any possible meaningful shift in the bill is going to please one group while further disappointing the other. If it was just the Tea Partiers grousing, Ryan might have some room for compromise, but that’s not the case.
Somewhere, John Boehner is laughing. Because this is exactly the sort of thing which so frustrated him. The competing demands by the various GOP factions are impossible, at times, to reconcile. And remember, Ryancare is a bill without an obvious deadline to meet on the calendar. The only pressure to pass the bill comes from Republicans’ own political needs. There is no date when Social Security checks are going to stop being mailed if the bill doesn’t pass, in other words. The situation (and the time pressure) is entirely self-imposed by Ryan and the Republicans.
What all this means is that Ryancare probably won’t pass, at least not in anything like its current form. But what does all this disarray mean for the upcoming budget fights? If Ryancare goes down in flames, the conservative media and the Tea Partiers are all going to be patting themselves on the back in a big way. They’re already personally demonizing Ryan in the same fashion they used to treat Boehner. But the upcoming legislative fights do actually have deadlines attached.
When a bill simply must be passed (as with the debt ceiling, for instance), Ryan’s going to have only one route left open to him ― the same route Boehner routinely took. Ryan will have to allow the Tea Partiers to make as much noise as they want for a period of time, but then he’s going to eventually have to sit down with persuadable Democrats in an effort to pass a bill. If Ryan’s own caucus won’t back him up, then he’s got to cross the aisle to get the votes. This will give Nancy Pelosi the same power she regularly wielded with Boehner, the power to strip the most odious parts of the Republican bill away before a single Democrat would vote for it. Which, in a feedback loop, will further enrage the Tea Partiers.
Ryan (and, to a lesser extent, Mitch McConnell) will be held up as a traitor to the conservative cause for “backing down.” This is the point where the Ryan myth will lie in tatters on the floor of the House. For all his supposed wonkiness, Ryan still won’t be able to get the Tea Partiers to see any sort of reason. If they’ve already defeated him once, over Ryancare, then they’re only going to see themselves as stronger for the upcoming fights. Which will make Ryan’s position weaker. Which, again, was exactly where John Boehner regularly found himself.
Of the three supposed young guns, Ryan is the only real success story (so far). Eric Cantor was primaried out of his congressional seat by a Tea Partier. Kevin McCarthy was briefly considered for the job Ryan’s now doing, but that only lasted about fifteen minutes. What’s truly ironic is that the image of the young guns was that of outsiders challenging their party to come up with a youthful and modern approach to conservatism. But now Ryan’s on the inside looking out at the Tea Partiers storming his castle. Ryan’s mythical brand of radicalism has been supplanted by the Tea Party’s truly radical attitudes towards governing.
The failure of Ryancare is going to be momentous, because it not only will be a massive disappointment to Republicans who love to hate Obamacare, but also because it will be a harbinger for future congressional battles to come. If Ryancare comes to a disastrous end, one has to wonder how much longer Paul Ryan will be able to keep his speakership. Call it the Ryan myth smacking head-on into the Tea Party reality.
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