The dream is over.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he won’t be running for reelection, after 20 years as a member of Congress. There are a lot of ways to look at this decision and what it says about Ryan personally and this particular moment in history.
But at a deeper level, it shows us just how hollow the conservative project in America has become.
The proximate cause of Ryan stepping down is that his party looks increasingly likely to suffer an electoral disaster in November. He’s facing an unusually strong challenge from Randy Bryce, the likely Democratic nominee in his Wisconsin district, so he probably calculated that there were two realistic outcomes for him. The worse one was that he was defeated while his party lost the majority, just as happened to then-speaker Tom Foley in 1994. The better one was that he held on to his seat while Republicans lost the majority, which might not have been better at all. Being speaker may have meant plenty of headaches for Ryan, but being House minority leader is a total drag - you still have to manage your unruly caucus, but you have no real power at all and can’t make any progress on your agenda.
Nevertheless, Ryan might have decided to stick around. He’s only 48 years old, and even if Republicans lose Congress this year, they’ll take it back eventually. And then he could get back to pursuing all those important conservative goals, right?
Ah, but there’s the problem, and the reason Ryan’s decision to bail out for what I assume will be an obscenely remunerated job with an investment firm is so revealing. After fifteen months with total control of the government, Ryan and his colleagues achieved almost nothing, and he’s now decided that there’s nothing more to do.
In his press conference this morning, Ryan explained his departure this way: “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids aren’t getting any younger.” So what did he accomplish?
For years, Ryan has presented himself as someone deeply concerned with fiscal discipline, committed to getting America’s books in order. As anyone with any sense realized, this was a scam: Like all Republicans, he used the deficit as a bludgeon against Democratic presidents, then forgot all about it when there was a Republican in office.
At the same time, Ryan, a lifelong admirer of Ayn Rand, the philosopher of selfishness, dreamed of destroying the safety net, eviscerating Medicaid, privatizing Medicare, slashing food stamps, and generally making life in America more cruel and unpleasant for all those who aren’t wealthy.
But as Paul Krugman observed, Ryan failed at both his pretend goal and his real goal. He’s leaving office after setting the deficit on a path to exceed $1 trillion in 2020, and yet he failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and didn’t even bother to wage an assault on Medicare, almost certainly because he knew how disastrous it would be for his party.
So what does he mean when he says “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do”? He can only mean the tax cut Republicans passed last year. In other words, engineering a giant giveaway to corporations and the wealthy was enough for Paul Ryan to say My work here is done.
And so it is for the GOP as a whole. Not that they don’t have some other things they’re hoping for, and that the Trump administration is working to carry out. They’re gutting the EPA, completely stopping enforcement of rules meant to protect consumers from rapacious financial corporations, attacking reproductive rights, and bringing back the War on Drugs, for instance. But when it comes to legislation, the Republicans’ time in power has pretty much consisted of trying and failing to repeal the ACA, cutting taxes, and then calling it a day. They waited ten years since Democrats took back Congress in 2006 for this opportunity, and that’s all they could come up with. They’ve made quite clear that there will be no more major legislation between now and the election, and if they lose the House (and perhaps the Senate as well), there will be no more at all.
Conservatives will have a few things to show for this period of absolute control of the federal government, especially a large group of federal judges President Trump has appointed. But given how high their hopes were for a legislative revolution, it’s a pathetic record. Don’t forget that all through 2016, Republicans - none more so than Paul Ryan - said that despite the fact that their voters nominated a vulgar, infantile, corrupt buffoon to lead their party, they simply had to stand by him because they wanted the chance to pass all that conservative legislation and have it signed by a Republican president.
But now that corporations got their tax cut, it was all worth it, right?
Paul Ryan was always a fraud. He pretended to be a wonk’s wonk, but his budget and policy plans were full of sleight-of-hand and magic asterisks that fell apart on the most superficial examination. He pretended to be terribly worried about the deficit, but he happily jacked it up when he got the chance. He pretended to care deeply about the poor, but would have made their lives impossibly more miserable had doing so been politically tenable.
And he pretended to be scandalized by Donald Trump’s repugnant words and actions, but after a few regretful words and furrowing of his brown, would always go right back to supporting the president. So while he will surely be remembered as one of the least effective speakers of the House we’ve ever had, you can’t say Paul Ryan didn’t faithfully represent his party.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog at the Washington Post and a senior writer at The American Prospect.