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.