No tears for Paul Ryan: On the short, unhappy tenure of the worst House speaker ever

Hypocrisy and failure are only the beginning: Ryan's speakership is a story of craven cowardice and collaboration

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 1, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Paul Ryan (Getty/Mark Wilson)
Paul Ryan (Getty/Mark Wilson)

There’s considerable pathos and dramatic irony to the end of Paul Ryan’s political career — if you are able to view him from a distance, like a character in a Jonathan Franzen novel or a Netflix drama set in Norway. He’s a guy who believed he was out in front of history and positioned to shape it, but wound up being dragged behind the emperor’s chariot while the populace laughed at him and threw unpleasant objects. Until a few years ago, I bet he didn’t even know what “cuck” meant!

As an actual human player in the real world of American politics, however — assuming for the moment that anything about that world is real — Paul Ryan is pretty much contemptible. He was given a sort of parting valediction this week, in the form of a chummy conversation with Washington Post reporter Paul Kane that was broadcast on C-SPAN, and it was one of those strange D.C. spectacles that splits the difference between deadly dull and flat-out horrifying.

There was a rueful, semi-apologetic tone to the whole thing, as well there might be in the circumstances under which Ryan leaves the capital. Michael Cohen and Robert Mueller were mentioned, more or less in passing; Ryan acknowledged that he had heard of those people, but didn’t appear to have an opinion about them one way or another. This guy has been speaker of the House of Representatives throughout the period when the president of the United States has vigorously labored to undermine democracy and the rule of law, while being investigated for various kinds of corruption and conspiracy. That has been Ryan’s survival mode the whole time: What crisis? He hasn’t heard about any crisis; it’s all distant and vaguely irritating family gossip about an aunt he barely knows.

As Jonathan Chait of New York magazine put it, Ryan was allowed to depict himself in the Post interview as a “wonk-statesman” who had “pointed the way toward a brighter and more responsible future” and, at worst, had “failed only to achieve the ideals for which he strived.” Chait’s principal complaint is that Ryan’s posture of sad-eyed fiscal responsibility is utter hogwash, since he has consistently pursued policies that have massively increased the federal debt. That’s unquestionably true, but I would say the hypocrisy, mendacity and all-around fakery of Ryanism runs much deeper than that.

If Paul Ryan isn’t the worst House speaker in living memory, that might be because he only got to do it for three years. Mind you, the competition for that title is stiff, considering that the list includes a convicted child molester (Denny Hastert) and the vainglorious and self-destructive Newt Gingrich. But Ryan merits a special award for failure when you consider his inflated reputation for political genius, his built-in advantages — Republican majorities in both houses throughout his tenure, a Republican president for two-thirds of it — and his record of accomplishing virtually nothing.

In fact, to say that Ryan accomplished nothing with the speakership is to give him either too much credit or not enough. He damn near wrecked the place, but because he possesses a genial manner, a furrowed brow and a vague air of disapproval about Donald Trump’s most egregious racist outbursts, he was halfway understood not to be the problem. Ryan’s major legislative “achievements” were an Obamacare repeal bill that failed in the Senate and a tax giveaway to the rich that was supposed to be a political bonanza but became poisonous instead. Taken together, those things further damaged an already broken health care system, blew up the already engorged deficit and led his party to a historic and richly deserved drubbing in the 2018 midterms, which now appear to have been the biggest Democratic win since Watergate.

Arguably, the destructive or self-destructive legislation was the good part. Ryan will be remembered, if anyone bothers to do so, as a craven coward and collaborator: Janesville, Wisconsin’s apple-cheeked answer to Marshal Pétain. I don’t doubt that Ryan takes a baleful view of Donald Trump in private, or that at every step of the path that led him from Trump critic to Trump lickspittle, he found some sort of justification. Doesn't that makes it worse rather than better? Ryan told Kane in the C-SPAN interview that he showed Trump a chart for a two-year political agenda, presumably right around the time the latter took office:

The guy builds skyscrapers. He related to the chart. I saw a chance of getting a lot of good policy done that wasn’t a long time coming. You get a better outcome by keeping it that way [than] by posturing.

I take it we are supposed to think, as Ryan’s interlocutors appeared to think, that this was a reasonable, politician-type calculation — it’s the way grownups get things done, dammit! — even if "a lot of good policy" wasn't exactly the outcome in this instance. Well, I’m sorry, but it doesn’t make me feel better about Paul Ryan that he ditched his so-called principles and tolerated an authoritarian zombie white-nationalist takeover of his own political party in order to pass a dreadful tax bill and get rid of some environmental regulations the Koch brothers didn’t like.

Some of the Trump loyalists in Congress empowered or enabled by Ryan — who helped cover up the Russia scandal or apologized for the semi-fascist assault on democracy — at least have the excuse of being who they are: Devin Nunes is a power-drunk moron, Jim Jordan is a true believer, Matt Gaetz is both things at once. Ryan was supposed to have ideas and integrity and vision, whether or not you shared them, yada yada. He was believed to be intelligent and serious. He does not personally appear to be a bigot or a misogynist. He made the pundit class, always eager to be seen as fostering dialogue and taking on the hard issues — well, he made them ache and yearn and feel a little restless in their chinos, let’s put it that way.

I’m pretty sure it was all a scam. If Paul Ryan is just a con man running a game of apparent sincerity — which, OK, may have started out as actual sincerity — he perhaps recognized in Donald Trump a fellow con man who took it to the next level, or six levels up. Trump is a master of the art because he is blatantly insincere. He has never been sincere and believes sincerity is total bullshit, whereas Ryan sees it as an important element of the political performance.

Trump’s con is so effective because there is no adequate way to respond without being ridiculous. You can revel in his outrageous lies and embrace the yawning chasm at the heart of existence, or you can stand there with a clipboard and argue about facts. Ryan understood there was no way to compete with that without becoming the Poindexter cuckservative par excellence, which is what happened to him anyway.

My point here is that Paul Ryan’s total capitulation to Donald Trump makes clear that by 2016 Ryan had become a hollow man, a vessel emptied of its Reaganite ideology with no principles left to surrender. He already knew that the conservative movement was in ruins and that while there were plenty of Republican voters, they didn’t actually support the Republican Party as its Washington leaders understood it.

Ryan came to Washington as an Ayn Rand fanboy and purported policy-wonk intellectual, with visions of radically downsizing government and rehabilitating his party’s image for the 21st century. I remember seeing him on Fox News on the night of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, a moment that made him a Republican rising star: He was cheerful and funny and vowed that conservative ideas, presented in optimistic terms and connected to ordinary Americans' lives, would ultimately carry the day. It was decent shtick, and at the time he seemed to believe it. Four years later he was the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee at age 42, supposedly as the vector that would connect patrician “moderate” Mitt Romney to the libertarians and tax-cutters and movement conservatives.

In retrospect, the fact that the Romney-Ryan ticket was a bust, at a moment when Republicans believed they had channeled a current of Tea Party-fueled, anti-Obama populist outrage, was telling. That was an upside-down early indicator of gathering Trumpitude, and of something more fundamental that none of us quite grasped at the time: The American conservative movement, as it had perceived itself for 50 or 60 years, had run out of gas.

Culture-war politics had previously been seen as the glue that stuck together a disparate coalition of voters behind a party whose real agenda was to support big business, “law and order,” low taxes on the rich and expansionist foreign policy. But as Pat Buchanan astutely perceived way back in 1992 (in a truly terrifying speech I witnessed in person), ground-level Republican voters only wanted the culture war and barely tolerated that other stuff. In fact, except for unleashing cops against poor people, they actively disliked it: They were totally fine with government spending for programs they actually used, as long as the money could be steered away from black people and immigrants.

This is what my colleague Amanda Marcotte describes as the descent into “Troll Nation,” bringing us to the current moment when “conservatives” no longer hold any ideology worthy of that name, and possess no policy goals beyond public spectacles of cruelty and “owning the libs.” I imagine Ryan finds that regrettable, and longs for a day when earnest discussions of Friedrich Hayek’s theories of market perfection will come back into vogue. But he’s probably smart enough to understand that the game is up, which is why he’s crawling out of Washington now, not just defeated (there’s no shame in that) but thoroughly disgraced.

After the 2012 defeat, Ryan had a brief window as the Republican Party’s apparent moral and political leader; he backed a now-infamous “autopsy” urging the party to reach out to minority voters, women and young people or risk irrelevance. Remind me again how that worked out? Post-2016, Donald Trump has done his best to get that report scrubbed from the internet, although you can still find an archived copy in the cloud.

Whether or not a conventional, managerial center-right party could be constructed to appeal to those demographics is anyone’s guess. Amanda Marcotte would argue that it wouldn't work because those ideas have effectively been defeated; others might suggest that party already exists and is known as the Democrats. (Oh snap!) Anyway, that prescription was just wishful thinking or nostalgia by that point: The GOP had drunk deep from the poisoned well of whiteness for more than 40 years, and its fabled “base voters” were more than ready to gaze into the mirror and chant Donald Trump’s name.

Ryan makes plenty of preposterous assertions in that Post/C-SPAN interview, including the claim that Republicans have now mastered being a “governing party,” that people really liked his tax bill but somehow didn't vote for his party anyway, and that history will look back fondly at his brief and disastrous regime of supposedly united government. But the really big lie isn’t about his fiscal hypocrisy or his willful political blindness or his collaboration with a regime of corruption and destruction and the “Everything Must Go!” sell-off of the conservative movement’s soul. It’s the entire architectural premise of that conversation, in which Paul Ryan is a sober and serious political leader whose ambiguous legacy is worthy of a deep ponder.

He’s just not. He’s a second-rate grifter who came up short and got pimped out by a much better one. Now that his street value is down to nothing, he's being driven out of town with an empty suitcase and his last suit of clothes. That’s metaphorical, of course; you can always fail upwards on the American right, and no doubt Ryan will be richly rewarded for espousing policies he no longer believes in and have been proven not to work. Back in Janesville, they’ll keep on pretending he’s a big man.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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