House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is announcing his retirement today, was not the most pernicious figure in American life during his era of prominence, but he was the biggest phony.
His Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, was always willing to wear the black hat, from his early rise to prominence as a lonely opponent of campaign finance reform to the cynical smirk with which he stole a Supreme Court seat from Merrick Garland. Ryan wanted something more. Power, yes. To improve the lives of the wealthy while reducing the living standards of the poor, of course.
But he also craved a certain form of respectability that’s led him to leave behind a staggering track record of broken promises and glowing press clips from journalists who were gullible enough to believe them.
From his early days as a Social Security reformer to his mid-career posturing as a deficit hawk to his rebranding as a person deeply concerned with poverty, he’s been the Jack Abernathy of Congress. Eventually, the con ran out, leaving Ryan with little in the way of substantive accomplish as he chose to cut and run before a midterm election that’s shaping up to be a race between his party’s deep unpopularity and the strength of its aggressive gerrymandering.
The many lives of Paul Ryan
Ryan joined Congress in 1998 but first really made his mark during the Social Security privatization wars of 2004-’05.
The basic idea here was that George W. Bush’s administration wanted to use the program’s long-term fiscal deficit as a pretext to alter its fundamental structure away from a guarantee of a decent standard of living in retirement to one where individuals would be reliant on private investment accounts. Ryan emerged as a player by sponsoring, along with then-Sen. John Sununu, a further-right plan that would create more generous private accounts at the cost of $2.4 trillion in larger deficits over the first 10 years. Indeed, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted at the time, “the plan would increase the national debt (i.e., the debt held by the public) every year for at least the next 75 years.”
This obviously went nowhere, in part because the cost envisioned was much larger than the Obama stimulus, the Trump tax cuts, or basically anything that Congress ever does. Nevertheless, it did not stop Ryan from rebranding himself a few years later as a deficit hawk.
By 2010, he was hailed by journalists like US News’s Paul Bedard and the professional deficit-cutting community as the very model of fiscal responsibility:
Need proof? A new coalition of budget watchdogs tell Whispers that they plan to unveil a new award today that will reward the best and the brightest of the green eyeshade crowd. Called the Fiscy Awards, they will reward two federal elected officials and one state or local elected official for bringing the deficit to the nation’s attention.
The Fiscy Award judges are serious budget watchers: David Walker, founder and president of the Comeback America Initiative; Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget; and Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition.
This award was completely at odds with Ryan’s actual record in Congress, which had featured support for multiple rounds of budget-busting Bush tax cuts, Bush’s deficit-financed 2003 Medicare bill, his wars, and his TARP bank bailout. But the new Ryan was said to be a deficit visionary thanks to his 2010 budget framework, which outlined a long-term plan to reduce the budget deficit. Except as Jonathan Cohn wrote at the time, the plan relied entirely on magic asterisks — an unspecified tax reform that would bring revenue to 19 percent of GDP while increasing economic growth, unspecified cuts to domestic discretionary spending, and a bare assertion that Medicare cost growth could be greatly reduced through privatization, with no plan to explain how that would work.
After being tapped as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and losing, Ryan decided that his fake budget plan had landed him with a reputation as being too mean-spirited.
So by 2014, he was garnering gushing coverage from McKay Coppins and others for his newfound commitment to fighting poverty. Ryan’s newfound commitment to fighting poverty didn’t mean he disavowed his support for a large tax cut for the heirs to multimillion-dollar estates. Or his support for a large tax cut for the owners of businesses. Or his support for a large tax cut for high-income individuals. Or his support for reducing spending on poor children’s health care, housing, and nutrition assistance. Indeed, nothing about Ryan’s actual policy agenda of sharply lowering the material living standards of low-income people in order to finance regressive tax cuts had changed.
But he cared. A lot.
And Ryan is really good at caring. In January 2017, there was a truly heartrending moment at a CNN town hall when he promised a young mother who’d received protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that she had no need to fear deportation even in the coming Trump era. It was really great television.
— CNN (@CNN) January 13, 2017
Of course, Ryan’s reassurances were total bullshit, as Vox’s Dara Lind pointed out at the time. Trump didn’t need a new deportation force to change Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s instructions, and House Republicans have been happy to pony up more money for stepped-up enforcement activities. Trump himself, of course, canceled DACA later that year. In September, though, Ryan told DREAMers they could “rest easy” because Congress would soon step in with a fix.
They did not. Back during this past winter’s immigration debate, it was commonplace for Ryan’s tireless apologists in the press corps to note that he would be “risking his speakership” if he defied House backbenchers’ opposition to a DACA fix. This might not really have been such a high price to pay to avoid ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent young people, but regardless — the DREAMers for whom Ryan would not risk his speakership can know that at the end of the day, he was happy to throw it away anyway; he just forgot to help them.
Though in his defense, he mostly failed at the things he did try to do too.
Paul Ryan’s career ends in abject failure
If Nancy Pelosi never gets her hands on the speaker’s gavel again, she’ll always have the fact that the 111th Congress was one of the most productive of all time.
Ryan’s brief speakership, by contrast, did not amount to much. The dream of Social Security privatization that launched his policy relevance is dead. The Medicare privatization plan that relaunched his policy relevance is also dead. His reputation as a deficit hawk has been exposed as a sham. He didn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he didn’t undo the Obama administration’s financial regulations. The year isn’t over yet, but Congress has basically abandoned hope of doing anything else.
What he got was a tax cut, the thing that every Republican majority gets.
And since that’s what his donors wanted in the end, that’s probably the important thing. But it is worth saying that the tax cut ultimately came together because Republicans abandoned Ryan’s vision of a high-minded tax reform and his dumb talking point about filing taxes on a postcard. At the end of the day, they slapped together an old-fashioned deficit-financed tax cut for the rich that throws quarters at the middle class in hopes of disguising the $10 bills handed out to the rich. Flimflam and phaseout gimmicks, rather than reform and loophole closing, make it work.
Ryan has, of course, also abdicated Congress’s constitutional responsibilities in an unprecedented way. Under his leadership, the House of Representatives is a land of “see no evil” when it comes to Donald Trump’s financial conflicts of interests or the dozens of various corruption scandals swirling around Scott Pruitt and other members of his Cabinet. When it comes to Robert Mueller’s investigation, they have actively worked to thwart it.
This is sometimes described as cowardice on Ryan’s part, but I think it was actually all rather daring. To throw in so wholeheartedly with an unpopular and corrupt president in order to maximize your odds of enacting an unpopular legislative agenda is brave, not cowardly. Cowardice only entered into it lately, when, having led his caucus most of the way off the plank, Ryan chose to quit rather than jump with them.
via Vox http://bit.ly/2FF4XI0
April 11, 2018 at 07:55AM