What kind of politician puts a $6 trillion tax cut for the rich in his deficit-reduction plan? Or a $660 billion tax cut for big earners and big businesses in his health-care one? Or adds $1.5 trillion to the debt so he can give wealthy investors and corporations, yes, yet another tax cut?
Well, in Washington, apparently a “fiscal hawk” who's famous for warning that “we've got to tackle” our alleged “debt crisis before it tackles us.” That, after all, is how House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who just announced his retirement, has most often been described. Pay no attention to the tax cut in front of the curtain — his real passion is attacking red ink with the earnestness of someone who thinks the words “budget baseline” are exciting. It must be true! He has said so himself!
A less credulous interpretation, though, is that he's just someone who cares about tax cuts more than anything else. But that, as New York's Jonathan Chait points out, is a story that, even though it explains Ryan's career about as well as possible, has been heavily resisted by news media that have invested a lot in the idea of him as a different type of Republican. One who's so principled that he's willing to say what others won't about cutting Medicare and Medicaid. A brave teller of brave truths. Never mind that it didn't make any sense that his plan to eventually balance the budget involved what would have been the biggest tax cut in history. Or, as Paul Krugman tried to get people to understand for years, that it wasn't really a plan to balance the budget at all, since it assumed that its tax cuts wouldn't cost any money, and it relied on a combination of unrealistic and unspecified spending cuts for its savings. Nonetheless, pundits still celebrated him for giving us “a place to start,” and anti-debt groups like the Concord Coalition feted him with things like a “Fiscy” award.
What Ryan had figured out was that the same tax cuts he had always wanted would suddenly get laudatory coverage if he said they were part of a plan to rein in the debt. But there was never any doubt which one mattered more to him. Which is to say, that while he really did want to slash social insurance programs like Medicaid, this was always in the service of further tax cuts. That was clear enough from the way he voted against the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles debt plan, which would have cut Social Security quite a bit, because it also would have closed enough tax loopholes to raise more money even with lower tax rates. Or how his plan to repeal Obamacare would have plowed the vast majority of its savings into, you guessed it, a tax cut for top earners rather than paying down the debt.
It's really a simple story. Ryan, however much he might want to deny it now, is an Ayn Rand devotee — he has said her philosophy is “the reason” he “got involved in public service,” that her books were “required reading for his interns and staff,” that he thought we were “living in an Ayn Rand novel” at the start of the Obama years, that American society really was nearing a “tipping point” between “makers” and “takers,” as she wrote, and that he even got his (entirely wrong) ideas about monetary policy from her books — who thinks that letting rich people keep more of their money isn't just good for the country's economy but also for the country's soul. It's the same fear that, historically speaking, a certain type of conservative has always felt about democracy: What's to keep the bottom 99 percent from voting all of the top 1 percent's money to itself? The answer is tax cuts. They're the only thing, from this perspective, that can keep the republic from being corrupted by these demagogic impulses. So nothing could be more important than them.
Ryan, then, has a lot of preferences but only one principle. He would prefer, for example, not to increase tariffs, or not to deport undocumented workers who were brought here as children, or not to restrict Muslims from entering the country. But if he had to put up with these things to get the tax cuts he wants, he would. He did. It was this monomaniacal focus on the top tax rate, in other words, that is why Ryan, and the rest of the Republican Party for that matter, were able to reconcile themselves so easily to President Trump. As long as they were getting that from him, they were willing to play their part in his reality show.
That's the one thing Trump didn't change about them. They never cared about the debt as much as they cared about the tax cuts.