Why Paul Ryan drives the Twitterverse crazy

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan delivers his farewell address in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress in Washington on Wednesday. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Speaker Paul Ryan’s valedictory to the House of Representatives Wednesday perfectly encapsulated all the reasons progressives on social media find him infuriating — almost as infuriating as they find Donald Trump, but for precisely the opposite qualities.

From the moment he became a national figure, as head of the House Budget Committee in 2011, Ryan has cultivated an image as a high-minded conservative — thoughtful, principled and steeped in the details of fiscal policy. This had as much to do with his humble, earnest demeanor and his penchant for explaining things with charts as it did with his actual governing agenda, which, as it moved steadily to the right, was not noticeably different from that of the rest of his caucus. But there was a space in the national conversation for someone who came off as a policy wonk, and Ryan filled it perfectly. His rhetorical touchstones — balancing the budget for the benefit of future generations, targeted tax cuts for job creators to spur economic growth, and helping the least fortunate among us without increasing their dependence on government — were so self-evidently desirable that months of Sunday morning talk shows could go by without anyone making the embarrassing point that they were also incompatible.

One reason the mainstream media fell so hard for Ryan is that he gave the impression he came by his ideology honestly, as a matter of intellectual consistency rather than party discipline. “Well done is always a better pursuit than well said,” Ryan mused in his farewell address. “In this business, you catch slings and arrows. It’s a price that I’ve been happy to pay because nothing is as fulfilling as pursuing an idea.” It is difficult to imagine Ryan’s Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose reputation is built on the blunt exercise of raw political power, saying anything like that with a straight face. But Ryan’s great strength lies in mastering the technique of the straight face, when he isn’t furrowing his brow or ever-so-subtly curling his lip to convey a knowing disdain for the current White House occupant.

That his principles were derived from the essays and novels of Ayn Rand was troubling to some commentators, but the mere fact that he had any at all set him apart from the great majority of his colleagues. A number of people who went on to prominence in politics and journalism were seduced in high school by Rand’s eccentric philosophy of rational selfishness, and even if they eventually got over it once they had some experience of human suffering, they could at least identify with a fellow acolyte. Ryan himself, by the time he ran for vice president in 2012, publicly disavowed Rand, who, inconveniently for a Republican on a national ticket, was an outspoken atheist and an early supporter of abortion rights. In an interview he gave that year to National Review, Ryan identified Thomas Aquinas and the social teachings of the Catholic Church as more important influences on his worldview. Beginning in 2014, he embarked on a years-long “poverty listening tour” to seek wisdom “from those who are revitalizing America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods and towns with their on-the-ground expertise and earnest compassion for those who live there.”

What Ryan claimed he saw in those encounters was a groundswell of support for privatizing Medicare, repealing the Affordable Care Act and turning over much of the responsibility for poverty programs to the states — proposals that largely reflected Ryan’s long-standing ideological agenda but somehow failed to rally enough ordinary Americans, let alone poor ones, to be enacted, even by a government controlled by Republicans.

But in saying goodbye to the House, and thus freed from the obligation to translate his self-proclaimed compassion into legislation, he gave full voice to that part of his philosophy. “You all know that finding solutions to help people lift themselves out of poverty is a personal mission for me and for many others,” he said earnestly on Wednesday. “Solving our poverty problems once and for all will require a great rethinking of how we help the most vulnerable among us. And it begins with realizing that the best results come from within communities.

“I challenge my party here: do not let this issue drift from your consciousness. Every life matters, every person deserves a chance to succeed.”

And that, of course, is the side of Ryan — co-opting liberal values while pursuing conservative ends, such as tightening work requirements for food stamps —  that enrages Democrats, because they never quite figured out how to confront it. (The Senate eventually stripped many of Ryan’s pet provisions from the $867 billion farm bill, which President Trump is expected to sign this week.) Ryan evinced a particular aversion to government poverty programs. In a widely quoted speech in 2014 to the Conservative Political Action Conference, he derided the preferred solution of “the left” to hunger, which was to give out food. He repeated an apparently apocryphal anecdote about a child who received a subsidized school lunch, but wished he could have a brown-bag lunch from home instead. “The left is making a big mistake here,” he lectured his audience, which assuredly had not gone hungry in a long time, if ever. “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that. … This is what the left does not understand.”

But “the left” fought to preserve the food stamp program without burdening it with work requirements that might have made it impossible for a single or disabled or just unemployable parent to buy food to put into a lunch bag. The question Ryan never asked himself, evidently, was whether the boy in his story would have rather gone without lunch altogether than accept a government handout.

The critique of Ryan from so many liberals in the Twtterverse is, of course, primarily substantive — his positions on tax cuts, budget priorities and health care are anathema to the left. But it is also stylistic, a reaction to his ability to project a brow-furrowing aura of seriousness and standing above the fray — qualities he laid claim to in his speech Wednesday, belying the time he called Barack Obama his least favorite among the presidents of the United States, a group that includes Richard Nixon, James Buchanan and Warren Harding. By contrast, with his artful use of his facial muscles, he managed to convey his distaste for Trump as a man without ever taking a political stance, or even saying much of anything, in opposition to the president or his agenda.

This was an act so polished that it fooled even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray into thinking he might be talked into reining in House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who as Trump’s ally was seeking sensitive intelligence documents that the Justice Department believed would compromise national security.

It seemed reasonable to expect that a man of Ryan’s stature, patriotism and institutional standing would take their side on a matter of such grave national importance. Ryan turned them down.

And in his political testament to the House and the nation, he maintained his measured bearing and his above-it-all stance, warning his colleagues that “today, too often, genuine disagreement quickly gives way to intense distrust. We spend far more time trying to convict one another than we do trying to develop our own convictions.

“Being against someone has more currency than being for anything,” he continued. “Outrage has become a brand. … It saps meaning from our politics. And it discourages good people from pursuing public service.”

He didn’t say who he meant. Maybe it was Barack Obama. But commentators on social media were not impressed:


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