Throughout his political career, Ryan has championed four causes: entitlement reform, or transforming old-age social-insurance programs to make them more fiscally sustainable but also less generous, at least to some; tax reform, with an eye towards unleashing the country’s productive potential by improving incentives to work and invest, especially for high-income households; welfare reform, to encourage low-income adults, including the parents of young children, to enter the workforce or increase their work hours; and immigration reform, understood as liberalizing immigration policy to the extent possible, with a special emphasis on expanding low-skill guest-worker programs. To his credit, he has been willing to revise his positions over time, sometimes with great thoughtfulness and care.
What is also true, however, is that the larger political and economic context has changed markedly since the 1990s, when Ryan cut his teeth at Empower America, the Kempite think tank that served as a launching pad for many young supply-siders, and when he first ran for Congress in 1998. In those heady days, center-left thinkers imagined that we were at the start of The Long Boom, and the center-right dreamed of Dow 36,000. The baby boomers had yet to start retiring en masse, and the then-ascendant New Democrats were almost as enthusiastic about entitlement reform as the Gingrichite right. The Soviet collapse and the dotcom boom seemed to vindicate libertarian economic prescriptions, pulling the entire political spectrum rightwards. A tight labor market promised to mitigate the potential downsides of nudging welfare mothers into work. Globalization and automation were still in their infancy, and it briefly seemed as though the U.S. would have a boundless appetite for low-skill labor from Mexico, which had been devastated by the peso crisis. To Ryan, it must have seemed as though there were no problems his brand of compassionate conservatism couldn’t solve.
By the 2000s, however, many of Ryan’s causes were already losing favor on the right, long before Trump entered the fray. Consider the grassroots Republican resistance to President George W. Bush’s push to modernize Social Security, to use the term of art preferred by Bush-era conservatives, and to couple a large-scale amnesty with increases in future immigration levels. The 2008 financial crisis, meanwhile, made mincemeat of the supply-side optimism that had long been Ryan’s credo, and which increasingly lost ground to a more zero-sum politics pitting makers against takers—a formulation that, for a time, he took up as his own.
It was in this darker climate that Ryan made his Obama-era pitch for Medicare reform, which played a central role in his rise to prominence. Because the retirement of the boomers had begun in earnest, and because boomer voters were fast becoming a bulwark of the GOP, calling for Medicare reform was a more perilous enterprise than in years past. Nevertheless, Ryan believed, rightly, that the rising cost of federal health entitlements was the chief driver of future deficits, and that it might crowd out other necessary investments, whether private or public. So he devised a plan to introduce competitive pricing into Medicare, which he tried to make more scrupulously moderate over time. Indeed, Ryan’s Medicare plan was so moderate that the CBO didn’t expect it to save much money relative to the baseline established under Obamacare.