Paul Ryan's Unrealized Conservative Vision

The House speaker rose through Congress with a goal of remaking—and slimming down—the American social safety net. All he got was tax cuts.

Jacqueline Martin / AP

Paul Ryan’s dream for much if not all of his time in Congress was to leave a deeply conservative imprint on American social and fiscal policy—to reshape and slim down the safety-net programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security so as to control the ballooning national debt.

After 20 years, all he got was some tax cuts.

Ryan will leave the House next year having achieved more in politics than he ever publicly claimed to want—first serving as the Republican nominee for vice president in 2012 and then as speaker three years later. But his ascent to higher elected office sidetracked, and ultimately left behind, his most ambitious policy goals.

A protégé of Jack Kemp, the ex-football star, New York congressman, and federal housing secretary, Ryan arrived in Congress in 1999 just weeks after the Republican-controlled House voted to impeach President Bill Clinton. He first rose to national prominence nearly a decade later, as the policy guy in a trio of up-and-coming Republicans known as the “Young Guns” that included two future House majority leaders, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Kevin McCarthy of California. Campaigning against the spending excesses first of the Bush years and then the Obama administration, Ryan used his perch atop the House Budget Committee to place his proposals to overhaul not only the tax code but Medicare, Medicaid, and the entire social safety net—previously considered part of the third rail of U.S. politics—firmly in the Republican mainstream.

“He was the great budget reformer,” Charlie Sykes, a former Wisconsin radio host and friend of Ryan’s who broke with him over the election of Donald Trump, said. “He was the guy that got the Republican Party to take entitlement reform and debt reduction seriously.”

When Republicans won back the House majority on a wave fueled by the Tea Party uprising, it looked like that fiscal blueprint might be Paul Ryan’s legacy. But his own star rose faster than his policy platform. When Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate, he adopted the image of the earnest conservative wonk more than he did the proposals—voucherizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid—that had made him famous to begin with. And when Ryan bowed to pressure from his colleagues to replace John Boehner as speaker, he gave up a post he considered his dream job—chairman of the Ways and Means Committee—to lead a divided Republican conference through a time of internal crisis.

The next year, Ryan worried that the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 would doom his fiscal vision for another four years, and some of his allies in the House and in Wisconsin wondered if he would leave soon if and when she won. But it was a Republican president who ultimately cemented the party’s shift away from Ryan-style conservatism.

“The election of Donald Trump essentially ended any prospect of spending reform along those lines,” Sykes told me. “And I think there was probably a long period of denial and a long period of negotiation and then a long period of coming to grips with the reality that is Donald Trump’s party, not Paul Ryan’s party.”

After distancing himself from—and occasionally, if mildly, criticizing—the unconventional Republican nominee, Ryan made what his critics saw as a Faustian bargain with Trump as president: The speaker largely overlooked Trump’s intemperate tweets, his bashing of immigrants, and his tolerance of racism in exchange for the president’s signature on conservative policy victories.

That uneasy alliance helped secure Ryan’s lone legacy achievement—a $1.5 trillion tax cut that contained the most far-reaching changes to the code in more than 30 years. But even that legislation fell short of what Ryan had long envisioned. Though it slashed the corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and began to limit costly deductions, it did little to simplify or flatten the code, and the tax cuts for individuals will all expire after seven years.

Addressing reporters on Wednesday, Ryan proclaimed himself pleased with his tenure. He touted the tax bill and noted that under his leadership, the House did pass significant entitlement reform—the repeal of the Affordable Care Act that included $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid. The measure died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I have accomplished much of what I came here to do,” Ryan said.

It was a curious statement, whitewashing years of advocacy for debt-restraining legislation that never came to pass. “You give him credit for the stiff upper lip, but no he didn’t,” Sykes said. “When people write the history of this era, it will be the triumph of Trumpism over Ryanism, and that’s got to be a bitter pill to swallow.”

Ryan’s acceptance of Trump and his acquiescence to yet another explosion of deficit spending damaged his reputation among conservatives like Sykes who believed he had bent his principles too far in service to a Republican president. And it drew mockery from Democrats who proclaimed his reputation as a fiscal policy wonk to be a sham.

But Ryan retained the loyalty of Republicans who begged him to take the speaker’s job three years ago and viewed his accomplishments—the tax cuts, a regulatory rollback, and higher defense spending chief among them—as much more impressive in an era dominated by congressional impotence. “He has everything to be proud of in his career,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told me. “It’s been one of enormous accomplishment. It’s changed the trajectory and the thought pattern of the Republican Party.”

There’s no doubt Ryan changed the trajectory of the GOP, but that change appears already to have run its course. On top of the enormous tax cut Republicans enacted in December, they agreed with Democrats on a $1.3 trillion spending package last month that drew howls of complaint from fiscal hawks. On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report projecting that annual deficits will once again top $1 trillion, substantially as a result of fiscal policies enacted under Ryan’s speakership.

“I don’t think any of us are happy with that,” Representative Bill Huizenga of Michigan, a Republican friend of Ryan’s in the House, said. “I don’t think any of us, whenever our careers are done here, can be proud of the deficits. It takes more discipline.”

Huizenga credited Ryan for shining “a spotlight on the automatic spending that goes on in our government.” With his departure, that spotlight remains—perhaps brighter than he ever thought or hoped it would be.