Speaker Paul Ryan, who on Wednesday announced he would be retiring at the end of his term, was characteristically modest when asked to assess his legacy at a press conference. Emphasizing that he only “reluctantly” became speaker of the House in 2015—without mentioning that he did so to head off a Republican civil war—Ryan said, “I think we’ve achieved a heck of a lot. ... I like to think I’ve done my part, my little part in history to set us on a better course.”
But Ryan played more than a bit part on the political stage. He shepherded a $1.5 trillion tax bill through Congress, permanently enshrining an upward redistribution of wealth into the tax code. He extended the Reagan Revolution into the 21st century, putting a sunny sheen on policy goals that would make the lives of the least fortunate significantly more difficult. And he did it all by code-switching to the language of wonkery, convincing Beltway reporters that the same old Republican attempts to roll back the policies of the New Deal and the Great Society were grounded in empirical necessities, in charts and graphs and actuarial analysis.
There was perhaps no one more adept at bridging the two increasingly estranged halves of the modern Republican Party: a base of white voters animated by fear and resentment, and an establishment class that used half-baked economic theories and paeans to individualism to line the pockets of the wealthy. In succeeding the embattled John Boehner as speaker, Ryan became the lynchpin of a party whose tensions had started to become untenable. And in stepping down, Ryan is essentially acknowledging that the center cannot hold: This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party now. There is no shining city on a hill. It’s American Carnage all the way down.
Since rising to prominence in the Obama era, Ryan has used his supposed mastery of policy to make the Republican Party’s legislative agenda more palatable. During the Obama years, Ryan made the deficit the centerpiece of Republican obstructionism, arguing that the president’s alleged profligate spending was putting the country’s economic future at risk. But for Ryan, like most in his party, the deficit was a convenient boogeyman, only to be set loose when the GOP was out of power. Under both George W. Bush and Trump, Ryan pushed massive deficit spending; in the former’s case, through tax cuts and a failed pitch to privatize Social Security that would have added $2.4 trillion to the deficit in the first ten years, as the federal government would have had to heavily borrow to make up for lost revenue; under Trump, through his successful drive to pass the tax bill, which will help add $1.9 trillion to the deficit by 2028, according to an analysis released this week.
At the same time, Ryan positioned himself as the heir to his mentor Jack Kemp’s bleeding-heart conservatism. Kemp once said that the purpose of politics “is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas than the opposition,” and this was how Ryan depicted his style of politics. In 2014, Ryan made it clear that he wanted to reach out to groups that had previously spurned the GOP. “As conservatives, we’ve become complacent with the caricature that’s been placed upon us,” he told a group of fellow Republicans. “What we’re simply trying to do is get back to the roots and get back to the basics, to take these great ideals and principles that made this country so special in the first place and regenerate them.”
In 2011, however, he had produced a budget whose centerpiece was a massive tax cut for the rich; the deficit would be reduced (and the tax cut paid for) by basically eliminating or privatizing every social service, including Medicaid and Medicare. This was Ryan’s policy program in a nutshell: Talk a good game about social responsibility, while funneling huge sums to the wealthy.
Still, through sheer force of will, Ryan’s vision of the Republican Party endured for a surprisingly long time, even in the age of birtherism, the Tea Party, and, eventually, Trump. In his GOP, policies that were extraordinarily damaging to the poor and to minorities were laundered by grandiose rhetoric about improving opportunity. Ryan was adept at convincing pundits that his budget proposals and reforms were about principles. He had a knack for referring to the GOP as the “party of Lincoln.” And unlike most of his colleagues, he actually seemed to mean it.
Ryan tried to pull the same con under Trump, arguing that a tax cut for the wealthy and failed attempts at snatching health care away from tens of millions of people were forward-looking efforts to make the country more prosperous and efficient. But Ryan’s wonk act has fallen flat under Trump, whose most consequential political quality is an endless ability to dispense with political subtext and get right to the point, which in the GOP’s case means appealing to white voters who are mad as hell. It became clear that the audience for Ryan’s dog-and-pony show was disappearing.
Ryan had pitched himself as the new face of the old guard—a man whose policy chops would fulfill the promises of the Reagan Revolution. He was practically created in a lab to appeal to “both sides” journalists, think tanks, and well-heeled “fiscally responsible” Republican voters. But over the last several years, that coalition has moved to Trump’s demagogic, zero-sum approach and away from Ryan and the old GOP political establishment.
Working with Trump, Ryan could no longer say with a straight face that his policies were seeking to achieve broader social goals. He passed an omnibus tax cut that not only gave enormous breaks to corporations and the wealthy, but was also specifically engineered to punish people living in Democratic states. Staunchly pro-immigration, he promised to protect the undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the country as children—the DREAMers—but did nothing as the president pushed severe changes to the country’s border policies. Staunchly pro-trade, he caved when Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership and began a trade war with China. He pushed big cuts to programs that help poor people eat, see doctors, and pay rent.
When Ryan did try to make the case that these policies were part of a grander social program, he was drowned out by the president—whose numerous abuses of power Ryan did nothing to curtail. Ryan and the Republican establishment bent themselves around Trump’s center of gravity. And once they passed the tax bill—possibly the last policy item everyone in the Republican Party could agree on—there was nothing ahead for the speaker of the House but pain.
If there is an irony in this, it’s that Ryan’s economically draconian policies are arguably even more unpopular than the president’s socially demagogic ones. But Ryan’s strength as a politician was never really about a mastery of policy—it was a gift for using political rhetoric to mask the cruel heart at the center of Republican ideology. Since the emergence of Trump, who has flaunted that cruelty, he has become something of a man out of time.
That hasn’t stopped him from arguing that his brand of Republican politics has actually come out on top. “The issue of the moment—the tweet of the moment—pales in comparison to the big policy changes I believe are going to make a difference in people’s lives and are going to move us in the right direction,” he told Politico on Wednesday. Ryan may have been the last Republican to realize that it’s the tweets, not the policy, that ultimately matter in the GOP these days. But he surely knows it now.