The Speaker was a public ally – and a private adversary – to the president.
After a month of the government in shutdown and a declaration of national emergency, Paul D. Ryan, the oft-considered inconsequential Speaker of the House, feels like a distant memory. Politics in the nation’s capital has trudged along, rendering Ryan dust in the wind of history’s heartless march forward.
As the government returns to regular business, though, and the political tumult simmers temporarily, a legacy conversation is in order for the 20-year old congressional veteran with a boyish disposition. While the face of Ryan’s record reveals little, an inspection turns gems out of the administration’s rubble.
On December 19, 2018, two weeks before the speakership changed hands from Ryan to Nancy P. Pelosi, the departing Republican leader delivered a farewell address at the Library of Congress. Ryan’s review of the state of the union will form the core of this commentary; one remark, in particular, lays a bedrock for his outlook: “Being against someone has more currency than being for anything,” he said.
This is a reasonable summary of our nation’s climate at this moment, a moment of uncertainty in government that is assuaged by hope in knowing people like Mr. Ryan sit at the table. Until, that is, a realization that the leader of the United States House of Representatives – and Washington’s most capable foil to President Donald J. Trump – has left.
In his valediction, Ryan did not lambast; he instead sent a policy message, as his roots would have predicted, and took the political high road that he has frequented as a truck driver would his daily route.
Ryan laid out, ultimately, a roadmap of optimism in the institutions that inspired him to start a career in the halls of Congress as a 21-year old intern. He read Ayn Rand, a philosopher whose central work, “Atlas Shrugged,” is of a certain conservative undertone, in high school. In college, he studied the economics of Milton Friedman and dreamt of reforming entitlements when he was “drinking at a keg.” Ryan often touts the “American experiment”: an idea – self-government – initiated by the framers and traversed by their posterity. This is what grounds the Wisconsin congressman.
The man hopes to walk out on that note: a trust in the endurance of democracy and in its stewards. He knows that President Trump is no such steward. The president is the one who challenges democracy and gives the speaker a reason to make the reassurance of, “Don’t worry, we’ll be okay.”
Although a promise of the conservative ideology will be Ryan’s last words, he blueprinted the GOP’s agenda with three priorities: uplifting the impoverished; balancing the welfare state and the mandatory spending programs (Medicaid and Social Security) which hamper it; and immigration reform, where he offered a moderate vision to an issue that has pulled American politics to the poles.
Ryan, in keeping with the politician’s favorite custom, talked about his accomplishments. Chief among them, of course, is the 2017 tax law that dramatically cut corporate rates and relieved taxes for millions of Americans. On the policy, the jury may never determine a verdict; like the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers and Americans will likely be split on partisan lines for years. Politically, however, observers can say with certainty that the Tax Cut and Jobs Act is Ryan’s signature policy achievement. It is his only true legislative jewel.
While Ryan is a self-proclaimed “policy guy,” and that is perhaps what made him among the most respectable officials in Washington, Ryan’s legacy is better served on the politics – namely, his handling of Mr. Trump – than the policy, where he has just one new law to celebrate.
The history of the Ryan-Trump relationship, an arranged marriage between an ideas-first conservative and a populist-driven outsider, began when the real-estate mogul was a nascent office seeker, a jarring but seemingly half-joking entrant into the GOP race for the presidential nomination. As the campaign matured, however, so did the prospect of Trump’s candidacy: it became legitimate, and it was evidence of a disillusioned party base.
But Ryan made clear early that Trump’s encroachments on foundational party planks would not fall on deaf ears. When Trump called for an unconstitutional ban of Muslims’ immigration to the U.S., Ryan’s disavowal was unequivocal: “This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”
And though the candidate earned the speaker’s lukewarm endorsement in early June, Ryan held to his resolution: the thought leader of the party would not be an idle bystander when Trump said something in contradiction to Republican principles – or in disunion with Ryan’s standard of public behavior. On June 7, 2016, less than two weeks before the party’s nominating convention, the presumptive nominee said a judge presiding over Trump University cases was biased and hated him because of his Mexican heritage, something that Trump claimed stood in conflict with his proposed border wall.
Ryan responded, “I regret those comments that he made. Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
A month before election day, when voters would choose Trump or Secretary Hillary R. Clinton to be the nation’s 45th president, audio and video of Trump bragging about his ability to sexually assault women was leaked in the infamous Access Hollywood tape with Billy Bush. Ryan’s office said, “I am sickened by what I heard today.” He canceled all scheduled appearances with Trump.
On November 8, 2016, Trump was elected president. Ryan’s foil – Trump’s pugnacious style to Ryan’s civil tone, Trump’s populism to Ryan’s sound policy (his old-age programs agenda was often called politically suicidal), and Trump’s veneer of Republican principle to Ryan’s fibered conservatism – was elected president.
The more courageous path for the House Speaker at that moment would not be a decision to oppose Trump’s politics, as Ryan did during the campaign. An act of courage would be a commitment to work with the newly-elected president as his partner in government, despite their myriad differences.
In his two years as speaker during the Trump Administration, a censure of the president from Ryan was a far rarer sight than it was during the campaign. This is a reality bemoaned by liberals. At times during the Trump presidency, one could imagine Ryan’s instincts telling him, “Say something,” in response to, perhaps, a presidential tweet. Many observers wanted him to say something more often. Some called him a sellout.
I prefer to look at his gentler tone in a different way. Ryan recognized that in order to work with the president – to do his constitutional duty to manage the government so it worked for the people – he had to fashion himself as a public ally. Ryan, in making this determination, decidedly held his tongue.
A public posture of support gave Ryan credibility with the president in private. In this way, while Ryan did not pass a slate of visionary legislation, he shaped American policy behind closed doors by acting as that critical foil to a president whose impulses often govern him.
It is impossible to know what flames Ryan may have extinguished inside a White House filled with turmoil and turnover. “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,” Ryan told the Times. “I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal,” he said.
When Leibovich asked for an example of such a nixed “tragedy,” the speaker balked: “No, I don’t want to do that,” Ryan replied. “That’s more than I usually say.”
The mind runs afoul with ideas: did the president want the House to develop a plan for mass deportation, as he promised during the campaign? Did the speaker tell him, plainly, that his House – Paul Ryan’s House – would do no such thing?
Ryan, 48 years old, leaves Congress with a mixed résumé on the exterior: historic tax reform, but shortcoming on his career ambition of reeling in the social safety net. In his farewell, Ryan called the overextension of Medicaid and Social Security his “greatest unfinished business,” but I imagine a speaker who thinks in much blunter terms. This was his greatest failure.
Ryan’s House passed an ACA facelift with the American Health Care Act of 2017, a Republican-crafted bill that would have achieved more balanced Medicaid spending by cutting the Obamacare expansion. Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell could not pass the bill, though, as Sens. Susan M. Collins, Lisa A. Murkowski, and the late John S. McCain defected.
Paul Ryan served just over three years as House Speaker, with a House Republican majority in each and full GOP control of Congress and the White House for two. Two legislative moments – tax cuts at Christmas of 2017 and a failed Obamacare overhaul – will come to define Ryan, the Janesville, Wisconsin native. His decade-and-a-half of prior service rendered Ryan a sure leader of the party: he chaired the Budget Committee for four years and took the gavel of the Ways and Means Committee before rising to the speakership.
Drafted by GOP stalwarts to serve as their new leader after the departure of Speaker John A. Boehner, Ryan became the highest-ranking Republican in Washington from October 2015 until the 2017 inauguration of President Trump. His national profile rose in the 2012 campaign for president, when then-Governor Mitt Romney, now the U.S. Senator from Utah, chose him to be his vice-presidential running mate.
While the surface of his legacy is checkered, Ryan is in my mind the quintessential Republican in an age when the commander in chief lacks all the conservative qualities that grounded President Ronald Reagan. Ryan’s private presence likely helped avert policy nightmares, and his public image – clear-eyed, civil leadership atop a Republican conference that too often turns a blind eye to the president’s unfiltered rhetoric – was the sort that many of the party’s loyal voters, left disheartened by the election of Trump, needed to see.
His optimism in the future, though, is cautious. While he believes chemistry to reform the country’s problems exists, Ryan in his address warned, “That is to say, our problems are solvable if our politics will allow it.” And while the speaker seems to have a roadmap covering every American issue, “The state of politics these days, […] is another question, and frankly one I don’t have an answer for.”
Ryan described a state of politics operating from a “trough of outrage” instead of humility and absent aspiration and inclusion. Today, “…genuine disagreement quickly gives way to intense distrust.” That bitterness is proliferated by modern technology, which “preys on people’s fears,” he said.
The speaker ends his congressional service with serious alarm about how Americans debate and how they treat the opposition, often with convictions of bad faith instead of a realization that both parties promote ideas in the name of the country’s best interest. Fear resonated in the Library of Congress with Ryan’s encapsulating thought: “All of this pulls on the threads of our common humanity, in what could be our unraveling.”
This is the paradigm, exactly, for Ryan’s Trump strategy: don’t invoke the president by name – he didn’t, at all, in the speech – but talk about the societal symptoms inextricably linked to a president who is often careless in his language and of the Constitution. It’s subtle to the casual observer, but it’s lurid to the acute listener.
That outrage that Ryan flags as a driver of Washington’s political problem is in no small part the cause of the president, who campaigned on Americans’ fears of immigrants and foreign counterparts serving themselves at the cost of the U.S. On the latter, Ryan offered an idea: “A confident America leads the world, too. Not with bluster, but with steady, principled action.” Count this remark as a twofold rebuke of the president: it contradicts Trump’s nationalist agenda, most recently realized in the withdrawal of American forces in Syria against the will of the Pentagon chief, and Trump’s style of diplomacy – that of seeking to effect change by shouting at NATO allies and reprimanding leaders on his twitter account.
On immigration, Ryan finessed a comment that managed to be all about Trump without saying the president’s name. He said, “Getting [the immigration issue] right is an economic and moral imperative. And it would go a long way toward taking some of the venom out of our discourse.” The venom he referred to begins and ends with the president, who commenced his campaign by alleging rape and drug trafficking of illegal Mexican immigrants.
Herein lies the Ryan legacy, if one reads between the lines. The speaker maintained a moderate hand that enabled him to work with the president, but he diagnosed the political troubles that ail the nation. The foil that Ryan is to Trump remains the theme of this commentary, and it is especially present in the speaker’s remarks on American politics. Ryan stakes red flags in the ground, warning of politics without dignity and character, while the president is the root of just the sort of politics that Ryan fears will “be our unraveling.”
He fears this, and says this, and nonetheless managed to pass part of a conservative agenda in the 115th Congress.
Although that might cement my case for a Ryan legacy of diligent leadership and genius political action, Ryan finds himself in political no-mans-land. Many liberals consider him complicit to Trump’s madness, while many conservatives believe he was disloyal to a swamp-draining president. Even still, his future prospects remain bright, as Ryan will benefit from time away from the Trump-dominated era.
Ryan says he has no plans to return to public life, but private life may render him eager for a chance to reform the broken politics of the Republican party. Seeing his children age, too, will give Ryan freedom to return to the work he loves.
Presidential ambition is what voters should hope exists in Ryan, who has the charm and chops for the Oval Office. His lack of foreign policy experience, an area critics charge hurts his chances, did not stop the outgoing speaker from stating a worldview in his speech. Ryan said the U.S. must maintain its strong footing in the world order: “When we show [the world] that our way of doing things still has juice, that we can do the most good for the most people, liberty gains ground. When we get complacent, we risk seeing more countries go in the direction of the autocrats. A confident America stands up to its challengers by committing to the pillars of international relations.”
When drawing a legacy in the age of Trump, there’s a necessary eye test. Ryan passed it with flying colors: his presence behind a lectern was a respectable type of leadership – no media bashing, no name-calling the opposition. He represented a Washington standard that is suddenly on thin ice in the country, as if lacking rambunctious rhetoric somehow deducts political points.
Ryan is a man of principle and philosophy, when the man in the Oval Office is not. Ryan is a utilitarian and an advocate for liberty achieved through democracy. The president – for all he says – makes no mention of liberty, and his trashing of CNN as a partisan actor comes with it suggestive rhetoric that dares to question democracy. Trump’s tone toward the media challenges not only the central creed of the Republican party, the First Amendment, but it ambushes everything upon which Ryan built his career.
Ryan is not due a gracious farewell and a robust legacy because he simply existed as a better version of Republicanism during the president’s first two years in office. These things are due to the speaker because he upheld conservatism in Congress while working with a president who often promoted a different agenda in the White House. Ryan is due these things because he publicly showed a better, truer version of Republicanism while keeping his profile with the president high enough to influence ideas in their infancies.
Much of political history is unwritten. From the great compromises chartered by the framers in the republic’s early days, to the smoke-filled rooms where presidential nominations were consummated, the discussions that made change in America will never be fully detailed in history.
The same is true of the Ryan-Trump relationship, that of a speaker and a president, foils to one another, who were forced by the glory of democracy to work together for the American people. How a true conservative, appreciative of this beauty, influenced a commander in chief, ignorant of this fact, is a story we may never fully know.
In seeing that Ryan honored this awkward dynamic and owned his place at the table, a fruitful send-off for the House Speaker is in order. His politics of stating convictions instead of convicting others, as he said in his farewell, is a relief in this age of high-stakes strife.
With these politics, the kid who came to Washington in 1991 with ideas and left clutching them still, Paul Ryan is again poised to answer the call of service sometime in the future.