It is possible the words “He cared deeply and passionately about the federal budget” have never before been strung together in the English language. But if they had been written somewhere, it would have been about House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. The Wisconsin Republican cared about the federal budget the way teenage girls care about movie stars, the way Angelina Jolie cares about refugees, the way a dog cares about a bone.
It is not unusual to sit down with a politician to discuss their signature issue, only to discover that said politician, having memorized 10 statistics and a few thundering sound bites, cannot actually discuss those statistics, or the policies they are proposing to fix them. Remarkably, Ryan was actually familiar with the details of his signature issue, and able to discourse knowledgeably about the trade-offs of various policy shifts.
He was even willing to talk openly and often about entitlement reform, possibly the least appealing policy platform imaginable. It was certainly a refreshing change from the classic politician refrain of “Everything will be better — somehow — and the only people who will have to pay for anything will be those jerks over there that you hate.”
Now he has announced that, come the end of his term, he’ll be leaving elected office. It’s probably for the best, given that the new realities of American politics forced him to abandon the wonkery that brought him to Capitol Hill in the first place.
In a surprising Washington twist, his abdication of principle to assume the speakership was not simply a cynical bid for career advancement. Most congressmen avidly seek party leadership; by all accounts, Ryan really did have it thrust upon him. And then, Donald Trump was thrust upon him, too.
So instead of making bar charts and talking about the best inflation index for calculating cost-of-living adjustments, Ryan turned to the task of holding his party together while its various factions lunged for each other’s throats. It was a task he struggled at, but given the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine anyone else could have done better, or indeed, half as well.
The politics that keep fractious coalitions coalescing are necessarily, well, political: greasy compromises, inadequate half-measures, and transparently insincere blandishments to appalling bedfellows. These are unsightly things to watch a beloved figure undertake. The results were equally unattractive: a failed health-care reform that made our shaky health-care markets tremble harder, and a successful tax bill that will add trillions to the deficits he once deplored.
Should he have called out Trump more boldly than he did, refused to pass a tax reform without some reasonable attempt to pay for it, and generally made more of a nuisance of himself to the more irresponsible elements of his party? Perhaps. But holding a divided party, or a divided country together, is a delicate and important task. We shouldn’t be too quick to condemn those who attempt it. And when they go down, we should bury them with honors.
If he lost the battle for fiscal sanity, it’s not because he didn’t fight hard; it’s because he faced an overwhelming force. Ten years ago, Ryan’s budget crusades seemed admirable, if quixotic. Now, however, the crusade just seems suicidal. Any serious attempt to put entitlements on a sustainable path or address our budget imbalances will be extremely painful. It will have to be done on a bipartisan basis, because any party that tries to inflict that pain alone will be decimated in the next election — except the party bases don’t want their politicians to work with anyone from the other side, and will primary anyone who shows any sign of moving towards the center. Talking about a budget deal no longer means tilting at windmills; it means sending your pikemen out to face a 21st-century artillery barrage. You can’t really blame anyone for thinking better of such a charge.
When politicians disappoint us, it’s easy to say “Throw the bums out!” But you always have to ask the bums standing behind them, waiting their turn. The right question to ask about Ryan is not “Could he do the impossible?” (Spoiler alert: no). The right question to ask is “Will American policy be better or worse with him out of Congress?”
The answer is likely to be “Worse.” His replacement is likely to be less reasonable, less broadly liked, and less interested in policy than the sound of their own voice. They’re likely to be someone who is desperately interested in the prestige of the office, rather than someone willing to sacrifice from their own interests to party and country.
They’re likely, in other words, to be an ordinary politician. Paul Ryan wasn’t, even if he wasn’t always as extraordinary as we might have wished.