Paul Ryan started his political life hoping to be the champion of a sunny, forward-looking conservatism. He will step down from the House speakership as the personification of conservatism’s decline.
One is tempted to call Ryan’s journey tragic, the tale of a young, idealistic family man transformed into an enabler for the most morally indifferent and utterly selfish president in our nation’s history.
It’s hard to imagine that the twenty-eight-year-old who entered Congress in 1999 thought fate would lead him to protect a chief executive under scrutiny for an alleged payoff to a porn star, potential entanglements with Russian interference in our election, and efforts to derail legitimate investigations into his behavior.
Yet tragedy often implies a protagonist who suffered because of forces beyond his own control. Ryan is very much responsible for the fix he and his party are in. This is why he had to push back against suspicions that he is leaving before a political deluge engulfs House Republicans this fall.
Ryan has been driven by two priorities throughout his career: slashing taxes on the best-off Americans and eviscerating social-welfare and safety-net programs in the name of “entitlement reform.” Whatever advanced these objectives was worth doing.
In announcing his retirement from Congress on Wednesday, he was thus reduced to repeating four times in response to questions that he was “grateful” to President Trump for creating the opportunity, as Ryan put it at one point, “to actually get this stuff done.”
The “stuff” the speaker was obsessed with included a corporate tax cut that ballooned a deficit he has made a career out of denouncing. Despite Ryan’s rhetoric, deficits never counted for him if they were created by showering money on the country’s privileged sectors.
At his news conference, Ryan was required by journalists to acknowledge the trillion-dollar annual budget holes that a supposedly conservative Congress and administration have helped create. He reiterated his stock response, mourning that the Senate never approved his plans to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps, which is the policy translation of the bloodless phrase “entitlement reform.”