Paul D. Ryan ended his congressional career in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, beneath a stained-glass vaulted ceiling whose grandiosity emphasized the smallness of the ceremony below.
And it was small in a less good way, as a reminder of Ryan’s vanishing power over the past two years. Once hailed as the intellectual leader of his party and the fiscal savior of a debt-ridden United States, he became speaker in 2015 only to see his party and country fall into the hands of President Trump, as the debt swelled and Democrats seized the House in the midterm elections.
Ryan is hardly the first politician whose grand ideas were snuffed out by reality. But few have been so synonymous with their intellectual reputation — with so little left over once that reputation ran dry.
His farewell speech was a thematic and tonal potpourri. Parts of it resembled a State of the Union address in defense of his speakership. “I’m darn proud,” the 48-year-old Wisconsinite said after rattling off a list of legislative accomplishments during his brief speakership, chief among them a $1.9 trillion tax cut.
In other places, it sounded more like a college commencement speech, as Ryan laid out a daunting future that will be his audience’s responsibility, more than his own.
“If we do these three things — make progress on poverty, fix our immigration system, confront this debt crisis — we can make this another great century for our country,” he said. “I acknowledge these challenges are ones we haven’t made much progress on in recent years.”
This was not a Paul Ryan speech anyone would have predicted at the beginning of the decade, when he rose to national fame as the “ideas man” of the Republican Party.
His legend then was of an earnest Midwestern intellectual who disdained the trappings of politics — the boy genius who first won office in his 20s and had spent the time since studying the country’s economic health. By the 2010s, he had convinced the core of his party that the United States would imminently collapse under the weight of its own debt unless it made radical cuts to taxes and social welfare systems.
It’s hard to remember now, through the fog of a Trump administration that dreams of military parades and a 1,000-mile border wall, but the specter of Ryan’s fiscal apocalypse was so vivid that conservatives greeted his addition to the 2012 presidential ticket as if Mitt Romney had chosen the messiah as his running mate.
“In this generation, a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time,” Ryan said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that summer. And the immense crowd that stood and screamed and cheered him on could have swallowed his farewell gathering at the Library of Congress many times over.
Romney lost that election, of course. But Ryan’s prestige kept rising until he became House speaker in 2015 — he was practically begged to take the job — and “started an effort to carve the Republican Party in his own image,” as The Washington Post wrote. What was needed, he said in a speech at the time, was a Republican president. And then he got one in Trump a year later.
But now, after two years of Republican-dominated government left the debt swollen near levels not seen since 1950, Ryan finds himself in the awkward position of talking around a still-impending apocalypse.
“I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality,” Ryan said in the Great Hall on Tuesday, the back of his teleprompter screen reflecting details from the ceiling mural — winged angelic figures and the names of Aristotle and Dante.
“We all know what needs to be done,” Ryan continued, as young staffers in the middle rows watched, expressionless. He sounded vaguely confident that someone would come along to do them, since he was quitting before his 50th birthday.
Ryan’s sanguinity in the face of retirement had thrown a few people — especially those most invested in the unrealized ideas he’d spent his career espousing.
“I don’t want to be an empty nester, only being a weekend dad,” Ryan told the conservative Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes after making the announcement this spring. “But the other big reason I felt comfortable retiring is we got a lot done that I came to do.”
“Your argument was that this was a crisis, it’s an urgent crisis,” Hayes reminded him.
“I know,” said Ryan.
“Is it still a crisis?” Hayes asked a minute later.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Ryan.
But the apparent debt crisis did not much intrude on Ryan’s goodbye celebrations. It was barely mentioned in a triumphant six-part retrospective his House office released on YouTube this week — “the story of Paul Ryan and his relentless drive to pass the first tax reform law in a generation.”
Narrated by Ryan’s brother and some of his closest allies, the videos chronicled his career, from his early days “deep in the wilderness” until his crowning achievement, last year’s tax cut bill.
Excised from this epic were all his talk about debt burdens and runaway spending and the existential future of the country.
But how much, really, can one ideas man be expected to do? Ryan had some ideas. He had talked about them until he became one of the most powerful people in U.S. politics. Then he retired and went back to Wisconsin.
“Good ideas, they just take time,” Ryan said toward the end of his speech, as if his bid to avert fiscal calamity were a loaf of bread he had left in the oven.
When he was finished, the audience stood and applauded for as long as it took Ryan to shake a few hands and disappear through a side door. Then they collected their coats and cleared the Great Hall almost immediately, as if leaving a staff meeting.
“That was amazing. Great guy. We’re really going to miss him,” a man in a suit told another as he passed beneath two sculptured cherubs on his way to the door.
“Yep, yep,” said the other man. There was really nothing to add.