Ask your average American what they think of politicians, and you’ll hear expletive-laced exasperation, even contempt, in reply.
I don’t share this sentiment. I admire good politicians. I have worked for a good politician. I respect politics as a vocation.
But one look at Paul Ryan, and even I am overcome by sadness. April 11th, as I listened to him announce his retirement, that’s what I felt: not glee, although I’m glad he’s leaving Congress, but sadness that a man of so few principles was able to harm the country in such lasting ways.
First and foremost, Paul Ryan is a conservative ideologue – a man who, by his own admission, spent his college days reading Ayn Rand and dreaming of cutting Medicaid, and came to Washington hell-bent on reforming (see: decimating) the welfare state. He has spent his political career pursuing policies that the majority of the American people didn’t want, and making his case for those policies by lying about their substance. And lest there be any doubt about Ryan’s willingness to follow his ideological dreams to the gates of hell, the Trump presidency removed any doubt. The last chapter of Ryan’s time in Congress will be remembered, above all, for his eager embrace of a dangerously unfit president.
During his time in Congress, Ryan fashioned himself as a policy wonk, a supposed number-cruncher, a man who claimed to be motivated by fidelity to fiscal responsibility. This was always a useful fiction, and nothing more. The Congressional Budget Office confirms it: last year’s Republican tax cut, Ryan’s signature legislative accomplishment, will bring the deficit close to $1 trillion by 2019.
As Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, Ryan attempted to reassure the party’s conservatives that Romney was authentically one of them. People tend to remember that campaign for its utter normalcy in the face of what 2016 wrought. But before the Trump campaign mastered the tactics of a post-truth politics, Romney and Ryan ran a campaign fueled almost entirely by disingenuous, bad faith arguments – all, again, in pursuit of Ryan’s deeply unpopular policy prescriptions.
In his speech at the Republican National Convention, Ryan bemoaned the closing of a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin – a closure, he said, that was the result of President Obama’s economic policies. But there was a problem: the plant actually closed while George W. Bush was still president.
Beyond the infamous Janesville passage, Ryan’s speech was riddled with inaccuracies – so many that Jonathan Cohn, writing for The New Republic, asked whether it was the most dishonest convention speech ever.
Then, of course, was Ryan’s insistence that the Obama administration’s stimulus package – passed while in 2009 while the economy was still in freefall – hadn’t created any jobs. This was at odds with the opinion of virtually every independent economist, but it was very much in line with Ryan’s conservative dogma. Nevertheless, Ryan’s stated beliefs didn’t prevent him from personally writing to the Obama administration to request stimulus funds for his own district, on four separate occasions. In requesting the funds, Ryan wrote that those funds would help create jobs for his constituents.
That campaign failed, but Ryan rose again, becoming the Speaker of the House by 2015. In June of 2016, he endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. He went back and forth on that support. But after Trump’s improbable victory, Ryan at last saw his opportunity. At his retirement announcement, he again reiterated his support for President Trump, thanking him for the opportunity to pursue his agenda.
Under President Trump, Ryan maintained his conservative agenda in the same way he always had: through dishonest arguments. Consider this moment from a CNN town hall, when a Republican business-owner tells Ryan that the Affordable Care Act saved his life.
“I want to thank President Obama from the bottom of my heart because I would be dead if it weren’t for him,” the man said.
Ryan tells him “I’m glad you’re standing here!” – and then proceeds to explain why the law that had saved his life was actually a bad thing that needs to be repealed at once. He goes on to explain – erroneously – that the Republican plan would be just as effective at covering people with pre-existing conditions. Beyond his expedient embrace of Trump, this moment epitomizes Paul Ryan, and his style of politics: If it will advance your cause, you can look a cancer survivor in the eye and lie to him.
Politics, it is sometimes said, is the art of the possible. Compromise is not only inevitable, but desirable. The solutions we come up with are almost never perfect. We’re not perfect, and neither are the people we sometimes have to work with.
But when facts become nothing more than inconvenient obstacles to whatever ideological goals we’re pursuing, democracy has already taken a major hit. Without facts we can agree upon, there is no basis upon which to criticize, to evaluate, to reason. Reality itself comes to be seen as up for grabs, a matter of opinion. Such a win-at-all-costs, truth-be-damned politics renders us incapable of talking to each other at all, let alone solving the complex problems of governing a great nation. In no small part, Donald Trump is the logical consequence of these very trends.
There is nothing virtuous about self-righteousness. I recognize that in my judgments of Paul Ryan, I am describing errors to which I, or people closer to my political leanings, may also fall victim. We’re all human, after all. I regard Paul Ryan as a lesson to us all, a man whose existence in our national life raises important questions.
What will we, in pursuit of our own goals, be willing to do? What are we willing to tolerate? At what cost?
Paul Ryan surely considered these questions, and made his choices. Alongside slashed benefits and mounting deficits, this is his legacy. Today will almost surely bring more news of our president’s attacking democratic norms and institutions, endangering people in this country and around the world, bringing the nation to the brink of a constitutional crisis. For Ryan, this is all merely the price of following his dreams.