Paul Ryan is one devious character. We’re in the middle of a Republican presidential primary and the Speaker’s office is busily putting together slickly produced campaign ad-like videos of Paul Ryan speaking in hopeful, forward-looking prose about the greatness of American democracy. And the fact that he’s doing this at a point where it looks like the primary is barreling toward a convention fight between two broadly dislike candidates has naturally led everyone to speculate whether Ryan is laying the groundwork for capturing the 2016 nomination himself.
I don’t think Ryan wants the nomination, at least not this year. The ads are provocative, sure, but his office has been cranking them out for months. Here’s one from last December, released when everyone in the Republican establishment happily assumed that Marco Rubio would be the nominee. And Ryan has to understand how huge a risk he’d be taking to swoop in at the last second and steal the nomination from two candidates who will have spent over a year campaigning and winning votes. He’d face persistent credibility questions, he’d have a Trump-led insurrection to deal with and quite possibly a Cruz-led revolt as well, and if he lost in November his political career would be over.
I think he’s doing something very different. Ryan is taking advantage of this fraught situation in the presidential race, with his party choosing between a toxic performance artist and an unlikable ideologue, to position himself as a voice of reasoned moderation. And he’s deliberately pitching this message to an audience that is ready and eager to swallow it, digest it and treat it as plain and obvious truth: Beltway pundits.
Here’s Ryan's latest video/ad/whatever thing, the title of which is “Politics These Days,” which could stand in as a headline for pretty much every Ron Fournier column of the last decade:
Division is bad, Ryan says, but unity is good! Success is good too, he adds. And disagreement is fine so long as it’s about ideas (ideas are also good).
That’s his message. It’s pabulum from start to finish, gussied up with some quick-cut edits and a softly inspirational piano score. And this drivel doesn’t resemble in any way the agenda Ryan or his party have pursued over the past eight years. But that’s not the context you’re supposed to judge this video against. Ryan wants pundits and reporters who are watching Donald Trump and Ted Cruz savage one another to look at him and think “oh, well, he’s the reasonable one – he likes unity! He said so in the video! He’s Paul Ryan, the wonky unifier who loves ideas.” As I’ve written previously, I think Ryan is looking ahead to a Republican Party that has been left hobbled by Trumpism and is positioning himself as the person who will step in to assume leadership. But under no circumstances should Paul Ryan be allowed to position himself as a “unifier.”
Paul Ryan, for all his talk of unity and inspiration, is an extremely conservative politician whose agenda involves wreaking massive amounts of havoc on the social safety net in order to finance wildly regressive tax cuts that shunt money to the top of the economic ladder. As late as last year, the Speaker who decries the politics of division was dismissing proposals to roll back tax breaks for the wealthy as “envy economics.”
Ryan has been pushing the same dogmatic policy proposals for years – the only thing that changes is the way he tries to sell them. In 2014 he tried rebranding his intensely plutocratic vision of America as “the American idea” and tried to borrow some legitimacy from the Founding Fathers. He tried recasting himself as a poverty warrior, rechristening the block-granting of social programs as “opportunity grants” and proposing to cure economic hardship through signed contracts that carry “sanctions” for failure to stop being poor. The series of videos he’s releasing now are part of another rebranding, this one for the social media age – the Ryan agenda now goes by the hashtag #ConfidentAmerica.
The guy is as much of an ideologue as Ted Cruz, but he’s savvy enough to know how to sell his extreme brand of conservatism in such a way that pundits and the press will view him as something other than a hardline right-winger. And right now he has the perfect foils in Cruz in Trump, who make it easy for a guy like Paul Ryan to come off as measured and reasonable.