The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paul Ryan on the GOP’s future: ‘We lose with Trump’

Former speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan. (Jay Westcott for The Washington Post)

Paul D. Ryan, 52, served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2015 to 2019 and was the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012. Now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Ryan is the co-editor of “American Renewal: A Conservative Plan to Strengthen the Social Contract and Save the Country’s Finances,” which was released this month.

The midterm election results were a surprise for many people. What’s your take on it all?

Well, I’m thankful we got the majority in the House, albeit much smaller than we should have or could have gotten. And we fell short of the Senate. I think the constant theme in this is: But for Trump, we would’ve had the Senate and a bigger House majority. It’s just another fresh set of evidence that we lose with Trump.

As you speak with people afterward, do you feel like this could be a good thing for the party?

Yeah, people are kind of afraid. Generally speaking, I think ambitious officeholders are worried that the Eye of Sauron will come after them and single them out if they criticize him. But you can only run a party through fear and intimidation for so long before it turns on you. And I think this fourth set of evidence — losing the House in 2018, losing the presidency in 2020, then right after that, losing the Senate in 2020, and now having this poor midterm performance — is more than enough evidence to know we need to turn the page and go to the next generation.

Do you feel pulled back into public service now?

It’s nice to be out of government. And I think my timing was pretty good for my family and for me. You know how I feel about Trump; there’s some estrangement there. So my timing was right. But when I retired, I decided I still wanted to keep a focus on public service and public policy, post-Congress. I’m very worried about whether or not America can get its politics together to become serious enough to tackle the main economic challenge facing our country. Because it’s crystal clear we’re heading into a debt crisis. And if we think our country’s polarized today, think how bad it will be if the bond markets turn on us, we lose our reserve-currency status and have to do very ugly budget surgery in real time, compromising the social contract and the social safety net for the people who depend on it. So [at AEI] I launched a project to produce a book with other fellows to present a plan to try and solve our major fiscal problems.

The book is dense — there are a lot of solutions dealing with Medicare, the dollar, digital currency …

As I told Jake Tapper: This is not going to be made into a movie.

Yeah, that’s probably true. Or if it were, I’d love to see who’s in the audience.

Exactly. Exactly.

But to distill some of the learnings: If you were back in the House right now, leading the majority, what sort of fiscal policy would you push on Day 1 to get the economy back on track?

Well, Day 1, I think, is to put in place reforms to our social contract and our safety net that keep them going. Basically, we spent the 20th century fighting each other over the mission of government, and in the 21st century I’d like to think that there is a reasonable consensus that we want a social contract, we want a social safety net, but we want upward mobility and fast economic growth. So I would start with the really big challenges like Medicare and Social Security and the other health-care entitlements and put reforms in place that are prospective, that are phased in, that put them on a sure financial footing and make them work better so they can better deliver on their missions.

You speak about strengthening the social contract [with] fiscal policy, but of course the social contract is predicated on perceptions of legitimacy. How much do you worry about the number of people, particularly Republicans and secretaries of state, who don’t view the 2020 presidential election as legitimate — and how destabilizing that can be?

I think those things are dangerous. Calling into question legitimacy of elections, which were won fairly, based on just the political interests of one guy is, frankly, ridiculous to me. And it is unnerving. Having said that, I think we’ll get through this chapter. We have to get through this chapter. And the way to get out of this moment is for the center-right in America to offer serious solutions to the real problems facing our country and move us from a culture war to a policy debate. A lot of our problems now revolve around a single person and the sort of narcissistic populism that accompanies that. You get past that person, and we get back to a better debate about ideas than about a cult of personality. Everyone in the world knows what I think of Donald Trump and his antics. That, to me, is a passing phase in American politics, and I hope it passes fast.

Are you surprised it hasn’t passed by now? Because that’s been your position for a while.

Yeah, the whole thing surprised me. I mean, I didn’t see it coming in the first place.

You talk about “entertainers” vs. “legislators” in Congress and how our politics today are “fundamentally unserious.” So how do we move to talking about ideas rather than culture wars?

I spend a lot of time talking with members of Congress who reach out to me on a weekly basis because a lot of them yearn for the days of policy fights and policymaking and just recoil from the entertainment politics that sort of dominate the scene. And I think both parties, Republican and Democrat, have the ascendant entertainment wing of the party that has sort of displaced policymakers.

The incentive structure in politics these days is not what it used to be. When I came up in Congress, it was a meritocracy, and the tools of measurement were policy and persuasion. If you were good at that, then you succeeded. Today, there’s an alternative way to rise in politics, and that is to be an entertainer — that is to measure your success through hits and clicks, likes, cable hits and curating your own brand. You can become famous fast, and you can raise millions in small-dollar donations online, and you don’t have to spend your time working your way up as a policymaker, negotiating, compromising, legislating. We have a lot of entertainers coming to Congress; the left has the same thing. So the challenge is: Can legislators and policymakers grab the helm and start leading again? I think the country needs that. I think the country wants that. The question is: Can we get there?

As you look back, can you point to specific moments where the trajectory changed a bit and polarization was chosen?

When Obama won, he got a great majority his first two years. He had a bulletproof House majority, and for a time he had 60 votes in the Senate, which is so rare, almost never happens. He ran, I would say, [with] the tone of a moderate in the election. Remember, “There isn’t Red America, Blue America. There’s just America.” I forget exactly how he said it, but then when he got elected with these supermajorities, he governed like a real hardcore liberal progressive. He went left fast, and he got a lot done. That gave us Congress back, and then Mitt [Romney] and I ran in the next election, and we lost. We were two sort of nice-guy, policymaker types. And I think our base flipped out and said, “Enough with these nice guys. I’m sending the biggest apex predator I can at this problem.” Look at who won. Trump got the nomination. Ted Cruz was the runner-up. Jeb Bush finished 13th.

So from my view, that’s sort of what happened politically. And then there was one moment where I realized the tactics on my side changed. Obamacare passed, we didn’t like it, we pledged that we would try and undo it, we lost the election. After that, I remember Ted Cruz ran all these TV ads for the Senate Conservatives Fund, his PAC, saying we can unilaterally defund Obamacare, us House Republicans. Without getting into the budget back-and-forth, having a “government shutdown” on discretionary spending does not stop entitlements, does not stop what we call mandatory spending. Medicare still works. Social Security is still in effect. The payments still go out the door. Obamacare, which is an entitlement, still occurs. So it was a big lie. But we ended up having a 16-day government shutdown over this belief that became super popular that we could unilaterally defund Obamacare when we knew we couldn’t. It was a masterstroke politically. And I think there are a lot of people who took a lesson from that, which is: Shock-and-awe, smash-mouth politics works.

So it spawned a bunch of mini-mes throughout Congress to sort of throw the rule book out the window and go with hardcore culture-war politics and just play rough and tough. So that’s our side. Now, the progressives did their own version of this story. So progressivism and entertainment conservatism became ascendant. And that’s what I mean when I say I think our politics have become unserious. We shadowbox on cable news at each other. Meanwhile, the problems are growing much larger.

What did that feel like in the moment, when you saw that as ascendant?

Very frustrating and helpless. I was like, Why do we have this government shutdown? This is ridiculous. This solves nothing. As a Republican, I was like: We look like fools. But more importantly, nothing is being solved by this. I made a decision in my career at that time to just go and try and be a legislator. I knew I could’ve run for president after having just run with Mitt and played this game, but I just decided I’d rather be a policymaker. So I went that path.

As you’ve seen what’s happened over these last few years, do you still feel aligned with the Republican Party?

There’s different kinds of Republicans and conservatives these days, that’s for sure. Jack Kemp was my mentor. I worked for Jack, and back in those days we fought Pat Buchanan and his crowd over the soul of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. There’s nothing new there. You had the [Democratic Leadership Council] Democrats vs. the progressives. That always happens. Parties are always in a constant state of churn. So is my brand of conservatism the dominant brand today? No, it’s not. It’s the populists. But again, that changes, too. And I do think, post-Trump, it’s going to change pretty fast.

Do you see a leader out there willing to take on Trump? Do you ever think about being that leader?

No. I’m so anti-Trump it wouldn’t work. I’m realistic about that. The MAGA base would never take to a guy like me. We have two bases in our party: We have the suburban, college-educated base, and we have the MAGA base. For us to win elections, you have to have both bases working together, voting alongside each other for the same person. And it’s obviously not Trump because he can’t win the suburban base — rightfully so, I would argue. So it’s got to be someone who can be both acceptable to the MAGA base but also liked by the suburban base. And I think there are plenty of people who can do that.

And do you anticipate that happening more quickly now, because of the lessons of the midterms?

Yeah, it’s a good question. The Trump brand just got knocked down a lot because of the midterms, so I think that sense of urgency vis-a-vis him is not as great, because he’s so wounded. You take a look at the DeSantis head-to-head polls against Trump. [Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis] beats him in all the swing states by double digits in recent polling. Before, [Trump] was stronger, more intimidating, but because of the midterms, no one’s going to be dissuaded against running against Donald Trump. He’s a lot weaker now because of the fact that people are rightfully concluding that he is becoming more of a political liability.

So people are going to run. And once one goes in, people are going to pile in. The one thing you can count on in politics, the constant form of energy that always exists in politics, is ambition. And I’m counting on ambition to get out of this mess, the ambition of other politicians to get in this race and save us and win the White House for us.

Look, I’m thankful for the policy agenda we got with him when he was president. I’m thankful for all the policies and all the judges, and I don’t wish ill will toward the man. I just want to win elections, and it’s clear to me we win without him.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It is based on two conversations with Ryan — one from before the midterms, one from after.