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The Death of Paul Ryan, Policy Genius

He's always been more con artist than wonk. After the health-care fiasco, the whole world knows it.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

During last year’s Republican primaries, Marco Rubio famously described Donald Trump as a “con artist.” But this week, with the disastrous rollout of the American Health Care Act, we’ve seen the con artist get played by an even slicker, more professional grifter. And Trump is not alone in being conned: House Speaker Paul Ryan has been fooling a lot of people for a long time, making the world believe that he’s the foremost Republican policy wonk, an expert in the fine print of budgets who could bring a much-needed seriousness to Washington. In an ideal world, the damage caused by Ryan’s role in pushing the deeply flawed AHCA won’t be limited to his relationship with Trump. This episode should strike at the real root cause of the mess: The powerful, persistent Washington myth that Ryan is a policy genius.

Trump is reportedly blaming Ryan in private for the whole catastrophe. “Mr. Trump has told four people close to him that he regrets going along with Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s plan to push a health care overhaul before unveiling a tax cut proposal more politically palatable to Republicans,” The New York Times reports

Trump’s big mistake was not just political—thinking that Ryan could muster the votes to pass the law. It was also a matter of policy—believing that Ryan actually had some idea of what a good plan would be. But it’s not just Trump that got bamboozled. Almost everyone in American politics has bought into the idea that Ryan is a pillar of GOP competence and seriousness. 

As Ezra Klein noted at Vox, Ryan’s health-care gambit was certainly a policy failure (“a shoddy piece of work”). It embodied what his “genius” has always boiled down to: Deceptively smart-sounding ways to advance the great goals of the Republican establishment (tax cuts for the rich, fewer services for everyone else). Those goals are in direct opposition to the populist promises Trump made in the campaign. But that’s where Ryan’s real talent came in. 

“Ryan’s stroke of genius,” Klein wrote, “has been flattering Trump’s vision of himself as a dealmaker through the process, and amping up Trump’s sense of the personal stake he has in the AHCA’s success.” In the process, Ryan persuaded Trump to abandon the promises he made on the campaign trail to defend entitlements and protect coverage for everyone. He’d brought Trump over the same plutocratic agenda that Ryan champions.  

Trump shouldn’t feel too bad: He’s not the first to be fooled by Ryan. The Speaker, not the president, is the greatest political fraud of our time. It’s been Ryan’s triumph to fool people all over the political spectrum (liberals and centrists as well as conservatives) into thinking that he’s a different sort of Republican, a policy maven with a genuine mastery over numbers who can grapple with the policy thickets of the tax code and health care. Unlike demagogues like Sarah Palin or Trump, Ryan was someone who eschewed dishonest and polarizing rhetoric in favor of honest debates about the issues. You could disagree with Ryan, so popular folklore went, but he was someone you could have a real policy discussion with. 

The myth of Ryan the Wonk was crucially nurtured not just by the right but by centrists and liberals, eager to have a Republican who didn’t just froth about “freedom” but actually could talk in numbers. These celebrations started to take off in 2010, as Ryan was offering an alternative budget which, his fans thought, was more serious than the anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party, then emerging as a force in the Republican Party.  James Stewart in the New York Times praised Ryan for having an “eminently sensible” approach to tax reform which offered an “outline of a grand compromise.” Klein, writing in The Washington Post, concurred, touting Ryan as having a “more honest” approach to budgets than typical Republicans. Alice Rivlin, former Clinton administration budget chief, described Ryan as “smart and knowledgeable” and “willing to negotiate.” 

Ryan’s sparkly reputation rested partly, of course, on the soft bigotry of low expectations (better than you would expect a Republican to be!), but also on appearance. Ryan looks like a thoughtful man. He can furrow his brow in simulation of abstract reasoning. 

Not everyone was fooled. Paul Krugman called him a “flimflam man,” pointing out that the numbers Ryan touted in his imaginary budget didn’t add up, with the proposed tax cuts creating much bigger deficits than Ryan acknowledges.

The AHCA fiasco vindicates Krugman’s harsh judgment. The “reform” was hated not just by Democrats but by actual Republican policy wonks—people who were critical of Obamacare, but saw the AHCA as doing nothing to make it better. In a devastating critique in Forbes, Avik Roy, one of the foremost conservative experts in the field, got to the heart of Ryan’s plan. “Expanding subsidies for high earners, and cutting health coverage off from the working poor: It sounds like a left-wing caricature of mustache-twirling, top-hatted Republican fat cats.” 

Roy, the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, is a genuine conservative wonk with a real concern for the impact of policy. Paul Ryan is a pretend wonk who throws around numbers to impress the likes of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. Unfortunately, the Republican Party only uses real wonks like Roy when they want to criticize Democrats. When policy gets made, it falls to Ryan. Perhaps the only positive outcome of the current turmoil is that it might, at long last, destroy Ryan’s reputation for policy expertise. 

Ryan has been a scammer all along. He’s not a more serious Republican who offers a welcome relief from the frothing of the Tea Party. He’s an Ayn Rand acolyte who fully shares the agenda of the hard right on economic matters. And his long con is now obvious for all the world to see. “Never give a sucker an even break,” W.C. Fields used to say. Anyone who continues to think of Paul Ryan as a legislative wizard or a serious policy thinker richly deserves to be called “sucker.”