Paul Ryan announced Wednesday morning that that he will not run for reelection in his Wisconsin district, ending his tumultuous, historical, and brief tenure as speaker of the House.
Throughout his career in Washington, Ryan enjoyed the reputation of being a policy whiz and a fastidious student of the federal budget. Among audiences in the nation’s often innumerate capital, an appendix has a kind of talismanic power, and Ryan dazzled the media with reams of appendices and analyses showing that the federal government was spending too much and taxing too much. In his detailed blueprints of future dream budgets, he envisioned a world that would have pleased his favorite writer, Ayn Rand—a world where winners are prized, and welfare is slashed, unlocking the animal spirits of capitalism.
Above all, Ryan rose to prominence under President Barack Obama by weaponizing federal deficits, and winning plaudits from centrists for his detailed charts showing the dangers fiscal shortfalls posed to America’s future. Yet Ryan leaves office just days after a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the Republican-controlled government under Ryan’s leadership has, in a matter of months, increased deficits in the 2018 to 2022 period by more than $1.2 trillion. Where did that $1.2 trillion come from? First, it comes from the corporate tax cut that Ryan not only designed but also promoted on television and pushed through the House. Second, it comes from higher spending across the government in an omnibus bill signed by President Donald Trump in February. In short, Paul Ryan, who built his entire career on reining in the national debt, has overseen one of the largest peacetime explosions of debt in modern American history.
It’s hard to overstate how dramatic this reversal has been. In 2011, Ryan was praised by the anti-debt Concord Coalition, even earning a “Fiscy” award, for “being the first [congressman] in several years to step forward with a specific scorable budget plan that would actually solve the nation’s long-term structural deficits.” But Republican tax and spending policies have added $200 billion to the deficit in 2018, alone. In 2013, Ryan criticized Obama for running “four straight trillion-dollar deficits.” Yet, the U.S. is currently projected to run trillion-dollar deficits in perpetuity, starting in 2020.
In the final analysis, Republicans, led by folks like Ryan, made deficits into a boogeyman to block support for cash-strapped states and adults without jobs in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when unemployment was higher than 9 percent. But under Trump, when the need for deficit-financed stimulus had gone down, he and other Republicans blew up the deficit anyway.
Why do deficits matter, in the first place? Do they matter? There is no settled science on the question. Conservative economists say they prefer smaller deficits. Leftist economists say that deficits don’t really matter as long as a country controls its own currency. A middle-of-the-road view is that large deficits are a bit like strong medicine: Very beneficial in moderate doses when the patient is sick, but potentially harmful in overuse when the patient has recovered.
When Obama took office in the middle of the Great Recession, the American economy was sick. Republicans pushed back against Democratic proposals, refusing to sign off on policies that would have used tax cuts and direct spending to immediately reduce unemployment. After Republicans took the White House, Ryan shepherded the largest non-wartime, expansion-era tax cut in American history, which almost all experts say will disproportionately benefit rich shareholders in the long run.
Ryan coasted on a reputation for being a sui generis Washington creature—smooth starch-suited politician on the outside, meticulous tweed-jacketed academic on the inside. But his legacy may be quite different. Ryan presented himself for years as a debt warrior. He blasted deficits to weaken a Democratic president and, once in power, oversaw a historic peacetime run-up in deficits to benefit multinational companies and rich Republican donors, much of whose wealth is tied up in stocks in those very companies.
Judging from that record, it’s reasonable to conclude that’s what Ryan really cared about: Shifting the income distribution of the United States even more towards the wealthy. In that case, the trouble with Ryan is not that he’s an unusually mendacious or cynical politician. It’s that he was a typical pol, using a fear-based campaign to gain public support for advancing the private interests of the financial elite. For all his singular laurels, Paul Ryan turned out to be a cliché.