Paul Ryan’s bittersweet exit shows the limits of ideas in politics

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Capitol Hill for the unveiling of his House Budget Committee portrait, Nov. 29, 2018. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)

Paul Ryan’s final days in Washington involve spending a decent amount of time looking at paintings of himself.

By congressional tradition, three separate portraits of Ryan have been painted (paid for by private funds and not taxpayers) and are being unveiled before he goes back to Wisconsin after two decades as a lawmaker.

One canvas will hang in the hearing room of the House Budget Committee, which Ryan chaired for four years. Another will go to the Ways and Means Committee, where Ryan was chairman less than a year. The third will commemorate Ryan’s three years as House speaker and will hang in the Speaker’s Lobby, just off the House floor.

The budget committee likeness was unveiled in a low-key ceremony last week in the oft-used Rayburn Room, with light hors d’oeuvres and drinks. Ryan mingled with guests and friends. His brother Stan was there. The mood was light and celebratory.

But there was a bittersweet subtext, even a bit of sadness. This was not the ending Ryan and his allies had imagined. The 48-year-old Wisconsinite’s conservatism, ascendant just a few years ago, has been curb-stomped and cast ignominiously aside by President Trump and his followers.

Five years ago, Ryan was one of the Republican Party’s most influential leaders. He was elevated to the national stage when Mitt Romney made him his running mate in 2012. That was a triumphal reversal of fortune for Ryan, who had to overcome resistance among GOP leaders to his controversial ideas for overhauling entitlement spending.

“I was ostracized when I first put this stuff out there back in 2007, ostracized,” Ryan said last week. “My own party said, ‘Run away from Ryan.’” But Ryan won the intraparty battle, and by 2012, his proposals for reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were the party orthodoxy.

In 2013, he worked across the aisle with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to reach a significant budget deal, facing down obstructionist forces within the GOP that had brought Congress to a standstill at several points in the preceding years. That was the same year that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shut down the government over his insistence that Republicans could somehow force President Obama to sign a bill defunding his signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act.

Ryan in December 2013, when he was chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., walk to a press conference to announce their bipartisan budget deal. (Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

Ryan stood for a solutions-oriented approach to legislating and a willingness to let the political chips fall where they might. Cruz’s approach drew from a deep well of distrust and anger among many American conservatives toward government in nearly all its forms. Ryan wanted to work with Democrats to move the ball forward, even if just a few yards. For Cruz, fighting Democrats was everything.

Cruz went on to become the last candidate standing against Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries. Ryan, in 2015, reluctantly accepted the job of speaker when John Boehner of Ohio decided he couldn’t take it any longer.

At his portrait ceremony — the Budget Committee one — Ryan talked about how much he enjoyed working with Democrats on that committee.

“Of the 20 years I served in Congress, four of the most enjoyable, pleasurable years — believe it or not — [were] in the minority,” Ryan told the audience.

What do we learn from this? That Ryan found the most pleasure in working on policy, much more than he enjoyed politics. His four years in the minority on the Budget Committee were the years where he rolled out his “Roadmap for America’s future” proposal for entitlement reform and promoted it. He was an outcast in his own party politically, but on the Budget Committee, he could engage lawmakers about the nitty-gritty of an issue that remains to this day an immense unsolved problem: runaway health care and entitlement spending and their impact on the national debt.

“I remember thinking, ‘If I’m going to do this … I just wanna lay it all out there,’” Ryan said. “We just decided to go full-on into it.”

Ryan named specific Democrats who he had worked with. “I really relish the time spent with them. Gwen, you’re one of them,” Ryan said to Gwen Moore, a Democrat who is also from Wisconsin and has been in Congress since 2005.

Ryan talks with Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., during the unveiling ceremony for his House Budget Committee portrait. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Moore, a 67-year-old African-American woman who grew up as the eighth of nine children in a working-class Milwaukee family, is a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a strong advocate for groups like Planned Parenthood.

Moore, in response to Ryan’s comment, blew him a kiss.

I talked with her afterward and asked her about her relationship with Ryan. They had served on the Budget Committee together, but before that, Moore had watched Ryan since he was a young Republican congressman elected from a moderate district in 1998 at the age of 28.

Ryan believed deeply in his ideas, Moore said, but he had the brainpower, imagination and courage to engage in give-and-take with those who disagreed with him.

“Paul has very, very, very strong conservative stripes, but I think it was mitigated by his ability to think, and so I’ll always treasure him for that,” Moore said. “And plus he was a halfway decent person. I love the way he loved his children and his wife. And that element is always something you can negotiate with.”

When Boehner approached Ryan in 2015 and asked him to please take the speakership, Moore said she cautioned Ryan against it.

“I went to him and said, ‘Paul, this is a fool’s mission. Don’t do this,’” Moore said. “Because I knew that he would get locked into the larger national agenda and have to concede or yield some of that bipartisan cooperation.”

Moore said she wanted to keep engaging with Ryan on issues like welfare reform and entitlements.

“I was looking forward to having that war with someone who was … that I thought that you could break through some of the ideological structures and really get to that part of him that was thinking,” Moore said. “A whole lot of people, Democrats and Republicans, come in here with a mindset that’s ideological, and there’s no amount of facts that can change their mind about it.”

“I mean, you could actually get him to sit down and think, and I think the leadership track took him off that path,” Moore said. “That was a source of disappointment for me.”

Ryan, newly elected as House speaker, receives the speaker’s gavel from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Oct. 29, 2015. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Ryan, meanwhile, took the job out of obligation, “Catholic guilt,” and because there was really no one else in the Republican Party who had the respect of enough House members to hold the top job in the lower chamber.

Trump rose to prominence at roughly the same time, taking the lead in polling in the fall of 2015 and winning the nomination the next spring.

Ryan’s core DNA was on display in how he reacted to Trump. He said what he thought without calculating too deeply what the political implications might be. It had worked before, when Ryan took a stand on entitlement reform and was able to get the party behind him.

It didn’t work this time.

Ryan was horrified and disgusted by Trump, those who have spoken to him have said often. And his public comments on Trump showed it too. He said Trump’s attacks on a federal judge because his parents were Mexican immigrants were “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” He refused to endorse Trump for a month even after all other candidates had dropped out.

All of this made it more painful for Ryan once Trump won. Ryan saw that he could use the Republican control of the Senate and House to push policy goals he had long wanted to. The cost: He would have to support a president who he considered a disgrace to the office.

And yet as the Mueller investigation stretched into Trump’s second year, Ryan came under increasing criticism for defending some of the most aggressive partisan attack dogs in the House, whose battles with the Justice Department seemed designed to undermine and discredit the special counsel. Ryan not only kept Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., in his job as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he defended him even after it was clear that Nunes was using his subpoena power for partisan political reasons.

The payoff? Ryan’s biggest policy achievement as speaker was a tax cut bill that ballooned the deficit by an additional $1 trillion over the next decade.

President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence, and Ryan after the passage of the tax bill, Dec. 20, 2017. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It did permanently reduce the corporate tax rate to 21 percent, down from 35 percent. But the national debt, which was at the heart of Ryan’s road map — the fundamental reason that Ryan went to the trouble of designing reforms to huge programs like Medicare and Social Security — has done nothing but go up since Ryan unveiled his ideas. It was on an upward path when Ryan first announced the road map, and it has continued to shoot upwards over the last decade, with a big increase from the Trump-Ryan tax cuts.

This ongoing debt crisis increases the risk of inflation, higher interest rates and recession in the next few years. And if it is not dealt with soon — as Ryan warned a decade ago — debt payments and interest payments will begin to crowd out essential programs that the government is expected to pay for.

Ryan’s willingness to go along with the tax cut bill was the best example of what his allies told Politico that his entire existence in Trump’s Washington added up to: a “deal with the devil.” Many now think of his deficit and debt talk as a fraud, even though his ideas for dealing with long-term entitlement spending remain some of the only serious proposals put forth by conservatives to address the debt. Perhaps Ryan planted seeds for the future, but he was certainly unable to make them grow.

Ryan told Paul Kane of the Washington Post last week that his failure to get the debt on a downward path was one of his biggest regrets, and the other was his inability to pass some form of immigration reform.

The awareness for the past year or two that Democrats would likely regain control of the House in the 2018 elections, which they did in fact do in resounding fashion, was as much an excuse to get out of Washington as it was a reason to do so.

This week was supposed to have been Ryan’s farewell tour of Washington. He had scheduled a major speech for Wednesday.

But when former President George H.W. Bush died last Friday night, it forced Ryan to postpone a planned speech looking back on his time here. Instead, he made brief remarks at the ceremony inside the Capitol rotunda Monday evening, when Bush’s casket was brought to lie in state.

Ryan speaks in the Capitol rotunda during ceremonies for former President George H.W. Bush, Dec. 3, 2018. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Ryan’s rotunda remarks constituted at times an extended subtweet of Trump, simply by listing Bush’s positive character attributes and accomplishments that contrast so starkly with the current president. “He reached the heights of power with uncommon humility,” Ryan said. “He made monumental contributions to freedom with a fundamental decency that resonates across generations.”

Ryan mentioned that Bush was “a devoted husband.”

But the line that stood out the most in Ryan’s remarks was that Bush, when he lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, “was the first president to teach me that in a democracy sometimes you fall short.”

Ryan could easily have been thinking about the 2012 election loss he and Romney suffered at the hands of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, which Ryan reportedly took hard. But the line also described his unsuccessful attempts to hold Trumpism at bay.

“How you handle that is just as important as how you win,” Ryan said.

There are many who disagree with how Ryan handled the Trump presidency, arguing that he should have done more to speak out against Trump.

He does not seem to doubt himself now. But in the days ahead, in the quiet that will come after Ryan has departed the halls of Congress, this will likely be an uncomfortable question that presents itself as something more to be wrestled with than dismissed.

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