The Man Who Killed Republican Reform

The retiring House speaker played a huge role in shaping today’s GOP.

Outline of Paul Ryan speaking in front of sky
Paul Ryan, then the Republican vice presidential candidate, speaks on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania in 2012.  (Matt Rourke / AP)

It’s hard to remember now, but a dozen years ago the conservative world was pulsing with intellectual creativity. Paul Ryan did not kill that vitality single-handedly, but he ranks high among the principal suspects.

Those were days when Newt Gingrich wanted action on climate change. When Mitt Romney pioneered universal health coverage in Massachusetts in 2006—and Jim DeMint cited that accomplishment when he endorsed Romney for president in 2007. Tim Pawlenty urged Republicans to be the party of Sam’s Club, not the country club—and that phrase carried him to the governorship of Minnesota and a campaign for president. Conservative policy intellectuals competed to offer content for Pawlenty’s promise, most notably Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in their 2008 book, Grand New Party. I offered my own small contribution to the literature that same year. “The age of Reagan is over,” Gingrich pronounced, and a startling number of conservatives seemed to agree.

As so often happens, this moment of innovation was born amid frustration and failure. On the battlefield and in the economy, the Bush years had not yielded good results. Bush himself barely scraped through to reelection in 2004; the Republican Party was plainly headed to bad losses in 2006 and likely in 2008. The old ways had visibly failed; something new was needed.

Then came the financial crisis. Eight years of deficit-financed tax cuts and light-handed regulation had ended in the collapse of the housing market, a global financial crash, and the worst slump since the 1930s. Millions of Americans lost their homes; millions more lost their jobs. In November 2008, Barack Obama would win the presidency with 53 percent of the vote, the best showing for a Democrat in 44 years.

All this might seem to confirm the urgency of change. Change came all right, but of the opposite kind. Conservatives reacted to the Obama presidency by recoiling upon the old-time religion at its old-timiest.

Newt Gingrich disavowed his carbon activism as “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years.” Romney repented of his healthcare initiative as an “experiment,” of which “some parts did not work.” When former Sam’s Clubber Pawlenty did run for president in 2012, he offered the most weighted-to-the-wealthy tax plan of any candidate that year.

The one person who did most to quash the new thinking was the Obama term’s breakout Republican star: Paul Ryan. Republican gains in 2010 elevated Ryan to the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee. There he rolled out a sequence of plans ostensibly aimed at balancing the budget—plans that would severely constrain the future growth of Medicaid and remove the Medicare guarantee in its present form from middle-aged and younger workers. The plan proved instantly politically toxic among voters in general—and equally sacrosanct among Republican elites. When Newt Gingrich tried to score points off the plan as “radical” and “right-wing social engineering” in 2011, he was quickly compelled to humble himself and apologize to Ryan. The ultimate 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, would select Paul Ryan as his running mate to assure the party faithful that Romney had repented of his healthcare unorthodoxy and would never repeat it. Romney’s single biggest error of the campaign, his notorious 47 percent remark, more or less recycled Paul Ryan’s single most famous speech, delivered at AEI in 2010.

America is drawing perilously close to a tipping point that has the potential to curtail free enterprise, transform our government, and weaken our national identity in ways that may not be reversible. The tipping point represents two dangers: first, long-term economic decline as the number of makers diminishes and the number of takers grows—and second, gradual moral-political decline as dependency and passivity weaken the nation’s character …

Romney lost, of course. The running mate whose ideas arguably doomed the ticket was elevated to the speakership.

And then … Trump happened. Donald Trump positioned himself as the anti-Ryan in 2015 and 2016, fiercely opposed to upper-income tax cuts, devoted to the defense of Social Security and Medicare against Ryan-style entitlement reforms. Through most of his career, Ryan was an open-borders libertarian on immigration. Trump championed immigration restriction joined to an outright ban on Muslims. Trump championed protectionism against foreign trade, anathema to Ryan, and promised a huge spending binge on roads and bridges—not exactly anathema but not easy to reconcile with Ryan’s budget plans. And Trump won and won again, besting 16 party rivals who more or less shared Paul Ryan’s view of the world.

After the election, though, Ryan and Trump struck a quiet deal. Ryan got his tax cut; Trump got impunity. Trump seems to have expected the tax cut to be popular. Ryan seems to have known better—and cared less.

It is an interesting question what might have happened to the Trump presidency had Trump listened to Ryan less and to Steve Bannon more—had 2017 Trump sought solutions to the problems so uniquely noticed by 2015 Trump, from declining blue-collar wages to drug addiction to retirement insecurity.

Ryan got accolades from party insiders. Trump, like Romney before him, will be stuck with the predictable political consequences of Ryan’s unpopular agenda.

Ryan’s congressional party seems on the verge of immolation in the November 2018 elections, as much because of Ryan’s agenda as because of Trump’s vagaries. Ryan’s own career will end before its political cost comes due—and far, far before its economic costs arrives. For Ryan’s legacy is all debt. And the question for the soon-to-be-shattered party he headed will be: Can the time ever return when Republicans can lay aside the dogma Ryan enforced to offer useful solutions to the chasm of unsolved and unaddressed problems Ryan left behind?