Born a Decade Too Late

Paul Ryan’s message was out of step with his moment.

Bryan Oller / AP

Paul Ryan is being roundly condemned for any number of sins, both real and imagined. On the left, the House speaker is being pilloried for his supposed devotion to the cause of enriching the already well-off at the expense of the poor and his failure to protect the interests of unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors, despite his insistence that he would do just that. In a rare instance of bipartisanship, fiscal doves and fiscal hawks alike are damning Ryan for the hypocrisy of railing against the dangers of deficits during the Obama years, while ushering in law policies that will massively increase them under President Donald Trump. Among Trump loyalists, he is denounced as a creature of the much-loathed Republican establishment, who has undermined the president’s agenda at every turn. Meanwhile, some of his erstwhile conservative admirers are dismayed by the fact that Ryan, the consummate team player, is stepping down at such an inopportune moment for House Republicans. So the question of the moment seems to be: Should he be tarred and feathered, or just exiled to the icy wastes of Siberia?

My impression is that Ryan is neither saint nor sinner. Those who have worked for him tend to hold him in high regard, and the same goes for most of the lawmakers with whom he has crossed swords. Having met him briefly some years ago, I was struck by his openness to criticism and self-effacement. People I trust tell me Ryan is earnest, warm, and unfailingly polite. Yet hardly anyone, including his defenders, would deny that he is leaving office a failure. And the reason, simply put, is that he was born a decade too late.

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.

At the same time, however, the Wisconsin congressman backed deep cuts in federal Medicaid expenditures. As I understand it, Ryan and his allies believed that their larger plan for revitalizing the American economy would reduce the Medicaid rolls, thus easing pressures on state governments that would find themselves picking up the slack of covering Medicaid costs. Competitive pricing in Medicare, in turn, would yield much bigger savings than the CBO had assumed, as entrepreneurial insurers and medical providers devised new, lower-cost business models. A more cynical interpretation, which has emerged as the dominant interpretation, is that while Ryan had no choice but to moderate his austere conservatism when it came to the old, there was no political imperative pushing him to soften his Medicaid cuts, which would fall heavily on the backs of younger people who don’t vote, or who don’t vote Republican.

I don’t believe this is fair to Ryan, who has long had a sincere interest in the well-being of the poor, and who championed an increase in the earned-income tax credit and a variety of other work-friendly initiatives designed to help low-income families climb their way into the middle class. This wasn’t just PR. One could object to Ryan’s prescriptions on the grounds that they were too paternalistic, or too complex to work in practice. His approach to fighting poverty relied heavily on empowering state governments to reshape the lives of their poorest citizens, which not unreasonably struck many of his critics as hubristic. Regardless, Ryan had little luck in persuading his GOP colleagues that shifting resources to poor families ought to be a high priority. Moreover, there was a tension between his belief that the federal government needed to top up the wages of America’s low-wage workers, on the grounds that their market incomes didn’t go far enough to allow them to lead dignified lives, and that the U.S. is suffering from a dire shortage of low-skill labor, which could only be addressed by increasing low-skill immigration. Add to this his commitment to curbing the growth of Medicaid, a program that disproportionately benefits immigrant-headed households, and it is hard not to get the sense that Ryan’s vision was a bit confused.

By the time Ryan reluctantly agreed to take up the role of House speaker, you could tell he was exhausted. Whereas John Boehner had a gift for navigating the GOP’s bickering factions, thanks in large part to the fact that he was bereft of ideological commitments, Ryan was a chastened idealist, who ultimately found it impossible to corral his unruly conference, let alone to understand how much the world had changed. His first attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, the American Health Care Act, was an unmitigated disaster, which badly damaged his standing and, indirectly, that of President Trump. And while Ryan is being credited with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, perhaps the only significant legislative accomplishment of his tenure as House speaker, it must be said that the legislation was far less ambitious than he had hoped.

Was a different outcome possible for Ryan? I suspect not. To successfully navigate this moment, he would have had to accept that the 1990s were a holiday from history that had come and gone, and that American political life is now defined by rising ethnic and class tension, which won’t be solved by a supply-side tax cut or fiscal austerity. At this point, it seems likely that Republicans will lose their House majority, and that the biggest losses will be among GOP lawmakers who were most devoted to Ryan’s vision for the party. Come 2019, there will be an opening for a young Republican to play the role that Ryan played in his day, and that Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp played in earlier eras: to create a new ideological synthesis that fits the mood of the moment. It is anyone’s guess who that will be.