It’s hard to excel in a job you never wanted in the first place. That seems to be one of the primary takeaways from the three years Paul Ryan served as House speaker since Republicans practically begged him to step into the void they created when they ran John Boehner off from the job in 2015.
Add to Ryan’s burden the fact that he had to work with a president who was his opposite in every measure but party affiliation, and it’s easy to think Ryan’s speakership was doomed from the start. But it wasn’t all bad for the gentleman from Janesville. Let’s review.
• Paul Ryan. If there’s one thing Republicans will eternally owe Ryan, it’s that he never made the tumultuous last two years worse than they could have been. While several previous Republican speakers became mired in scandal during or after their tenures, Ryan was never a leader Republicans had to worry about. Not only was Ryan’s good-guy image genuine, but his down-to-Earth decency and self-restraint were also an important counterbalance to the bottomless scandals down the street in the West Wing.
• Anti-poverty agenda. In the months after the 2012 elections, Ryan quietly traveled the country with Bob Woodson, a civil-rights activist, to visit impoverished communities around the country. The two traveled once a month for two years to inform the anti-poverty agenda that Ryan hoped to pursue as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Ryan’s focus on poverty didn’t get much attention during his speakership, and it certainly wasn’t a centerpiece of his or any GOP agenda. But Ryan did manage to move a few discrete items to address income inequality in larger bills. The tax cut package included language creating “opportunity zones” to encourage investment in low-income neighborhoods, along with “social-impact bonds” to allow bond issues to address pressing social needs.
• Tax reform. As the holy grail of Republican policy goals, it would have been unacceptable for a Republican-led House not to deliver a tax reform package to President Donald Trump, especially after Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare as promised in 2017. Ryan drove passage of the bill, even on the days when West Wing drama threatened to stall it completely.
That the tax cuts also rang up massive deficits and threaten to explode the national debt is a topic for the next section.
• Debt and deficits. If there was a more passionate evangelist against the evils of government debt and deficits over the last 20 years than Rep. Paul Ryan, it is hard to think of one. When he unexpectedly ascended to the speakership in 2015, many in Washington assumed he would quickly advance an agenda to achieve what he had preached for so long — a program to shrink the debt into balance, even if it hurt.
But with Trump (the self-proclaimed “king of debt”) in the White House, Ryan oversaw a massive escalation of debt-financed defense spending, along with tax cuts that have failed to throw off the increased revenue that supply-siders long promised would materialize if they could pass their ideal legislation. The result has been a nearly 80 percent increase in annual deficits during Ryan’s tenure, along with a projected $1.5 trillion increase in the projected debt over 10 years.
• Republicans lost the House. Anyone who covered the 2018 midterm elections knows that it was Donald Trump, not Paul Ryan, on the minds of voters when they were casting their ballots to oust Republicans from power. So blaming Ryan for the loss of the House is like blaming the dog for getting hit by the car. But why was the dog in the street in the first place?
One concern I heard again and again from voters was that if the Republican Congress was unwilling or incapable of providing oversight for Trump and his administration, they would pick a new Congress. Had Ryan managed to make the House Intelligence Committee seem less complicit, or encouraged other committees to delve into worrisome conflicts of interest throughout the administration, it’s possible the House losses would have been less severe. But we’ll never know, since Ryan chose to keep his criticism of the president private, and the House’s public posture toward the administration almost entirely supportive.
The truly disappointing
• What could have been. When Ryan became speaker, there was an overarching sense of possibility shared by Republicans and Democrats alike that he could become a breakout leader. As a young congressman and Jack Kemp protégé, he was known as an affable, committed policy wonk. He seemed to care genuinely about poverty issues, but was also admired by conservatives for his commitment to the un-sexy work of balancing budgets. What could that combination achieve with real power some day?
The answer has so far been unsatisfying to both sides, even if some of the blame belongs to Trump, whose daily rants and growing scandals quickly and endlessly overshadowed Ryan’s agenda. But instead of staying in the fight, Ryan decided to abandon the speakership before most people thought he had really gotten started in it.
The debate among journalists from a wide swath of ideologies is now settling into whether Ryan was a just a failure or more specifically a fraud, in Lawrence O’Donnell’s words. Ezra Klien in Vox has lamented Ryan’s “legacy of debt and disappointment,” while Townhall called Ryan a “stooge” who will “leave in disgrace, deservedly so.”
More realistically, Ryan will leave Congress like the institution itself — making incremental progress one day and sliding backward the next, with people on the outside wondering when it will finally live up to the hopes we had for it.