Paul Ryan’s Compromised Legacy

The retiring House speaker leaves behind a near-trillion-dollar debt and a Trumpian GOP.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

As he readies his escape from the wreckage wrought by the blue wave, Paul Ryan is patting himself on the back for a job well done. During an exit interview on November 30, the lame-duck House speaker and Republican leader declared: “I’d say we became a pretty good governing party … I think history is going to be very good to this majority.”

His self-assessment is not universally shared. The ex-Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who rarely minces words, likely spoke for many when he shared this perspective last April, on the day Ryan announced that he would bail in December: “Paul Ryan’s monument will be the putrid and smoldering ruins of the Republican Party and conservative movement that he betrayed with his complicity and cowardice. He lacked the guts to stand for decency and the wisdom to confront the threat of Trumpism.”

Ryan himself concedes that his farewell tour—a public-service award, the unveiling of a portrait in the House—has been bittersweet. An avowed budget-deficit hawk over the span of his 20-year career (“We owe the American people a responsible balanced budget,” he said in 2013), he’s now expressing “regret” that the budget deficit will balloon to $1 trillion a year by 2020, thanks largely to the massive tax-cut law he championed with President Donald Trump.

An avowed supporter of immigration reform, especially for immigrants brought to America as children (in January 2017, he told a “Dreamer”: “If you’re worried about some deportation force knocking on your door this year, don’t worry about that”), he stood by while Trump ended protections for Dreamers and cracked down on immigrants via executive actions. And even with one foot out the door, Ryan is indulging Trump’s obsession with a border wall (as are 63 percent of grassroots Republicans), telling The Washington Post that Trump “thinks the issue of border security is a winner … Look, I just see it as the right thing to do.”

And the avowed critic of Trump (whom he declined to endorse until the virtual eve of the 2016 GOP convention) has spent most of the past two years in rhetorical lockdown. He has refused to rebuke the divisive tweets and comments that have alienated swing voters and suburban Republicans, as vividly evidenced by the midterm results. Ryan’s brand of conservatism—inspired by, among others, Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp—was meant to be upbeat and aspirational, not racist and nativist. But he held his tongue and forged one of the strangest bedfellow pacts in political history (his own confidants reportedly called it “Paul’s deal with the devil”), fueled by the tantalizing opportunity of all-Republican rule.

The result of this Faustian bargain was that Ryan became willfully oblivious about the president’s relentless pronouncements on Twitter. Indeed, he confessed his strategy at the comedic Al Smith dinner in October 2017: “Every morning, I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see which tweets that I’ll have to pretend that I did not see later on.” That wink at the audience was played for laughs, but it confirmed that Ryan was fully aware of his role as aider and abettor.

Granted, Ryan was trapped by political circumstances beyond his control. He didn’t foresee or endorse Trump’s populist uprising; he would’ve preferred virtually anyone else in the White House. At one point, during the 2016 campaign, he even called one Trump tweet “a textbook definition of a racist comment.” But as speaker, he ultimately had to bend to the will of Republican voters. Working with Trump was a practical necessity.

But marching in lockstep and turning a blind eye were his choices. Congress was designed to hold the executive branch accountable, and what most infuriates Ryan’s critics is his failure to provide even a modicum of oversight—particularly in the realm of intelligence. Most notably, Ryan refused to rein in Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who evinced little interest in probing links between the Trump team and Russia. (Last summer, in fact, Nunes told a fund-raising audience that if Special Counsel Robert Mueller won’t clear the president, “we’re the only ones.”)

Ryan, in his own defense, saw his role as mitigating damage. He suggested, in a summer 2018 interview, that Trump could’ve been worse if he hadn’t been in the room: “I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, ‘I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy. I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal.’” When asked to specify a tragedy, he replied: “No, I don’t want to do that.”

His detractors don’t buy his defense. Norman Ornstein, the nonpartisan Washington analyst who has tracked Congress since the 1970s, tells me that Ryan’s “encouragement and protection of Devin Nunes as he tried mightily to sabotage the Russia investigation is a serious black mark”—but that his accountability deficit is far deeper: “Under his aegis, there was no oversight either of corruption or misdeeds by Trump, his family, his staff and his Cabinet … no hearings on the Puerto Rico hurricane disaster, child separation, budget cuts to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] leaving us more vulnerable to pandemics, or any other examples of failures in governance. And his biggest legacy will be the ballooning debt burden that will make it difficult to get us out of the next recession, and will be a burden for the country for many decades.”

In recent days, he has also declined to hold his fellow Republicans in Wisconsin accountable. His friend Scott Walker lost his bid for a third gubernatorial term, but legislative Republicans in Ryan’s home state have spurned the peaceful transfer of power. Last week, in a lame-duck session, they passed measures to hamper the powers of the incoming Democratic governor—an unprecedented move that prompted Sheldon Lubar, a prominent Republican businessman and donor, to point out that the power curb “ignores the will of the majority of Wisconsin voters.” Ryan has yet to utter a word; a spokesman told the press last week, “I don’t have anything for you.”

It was clear, when Ryan announced his retirement back in April, that he foresaw a day of reckoning. The blue wave was building, fueled by a grassroots thirst for checks and balances; Trump’s baggage would clearly be on the ballot; and some of Ryan’s most cherished dreams—cutting Social Security and Medicare entitlements, repealing and replacing Obamacare—were destined to die. So he did what politicians often do in dire circumstances: He simply declared victory. He lauded what he saw as his signature achievement as speaker, a “major reform of the tax code for the first time in 36 years, which has already had a huge success for this country.”

Fiscal experts have long pointed out that tilting tax cuts to the highest earners and flooding new red ink on the budget ledger do not constitute “a huge success.” But even now, in the waning days of his tenure, Ryan is still touting the tax-cut law, insisting that it was a great issue on the midterm-campaign trail. The polls said otherwise; Gallup reported in October that only 39 percent of Americans supported the law, and Republicans scaled back their ads about it. Nevertheless, on November 30, when the Post asked Ryan why the law didn’t sell well during the midterms, he replied: “It actually did, in many ways. We pushed it hard from the House … When we had the opportunity to talk about [it], it was spectacular … Good story to tell.”

It is merely a story he tells himself—just as his claim that House Republicans were “a pretty good governing party” is a story he tells himself. In truth, he leaves Congress after his Republican brethren were drowned in the biggest blue wave since 1974. He leaves Congress with his conservative ideals in tatters. He leaves Congress having consoled himself, as he remarked on December 3, “that in a democracy, sometimes you fall short.”