I was slinking around the floor with the media suites at the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention when a Secret Service agent asked me to step to the side. And from around the bend at the Quicken Loans Arena walked Speaker Paul Ryan hand-in-hand with his wife.
“Mr. Speaker,” I recall saying. Upon seeing me, the Wisconsin Republican let out an amiable greeting and without breaking his stride, did one of those handshakes popular with athletes and other workout fiends like him. The kind where the hand sweeps out like it’s about to take flight before swooping down in an arc to meet the other’s hand. When our hands made contact, it felt as though I'd slammed my right hand on a cinder block wall.
Unfortunately, the throbbing in that right hand that lasted more than a half hour is the only lasting impression I have of Speaker Ryan’s tenure.
Like so many, I had such hopes for Ryan. His “road map for America’s future” op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in January 2010 was a watershed moment. Not that I agreed with his Ayn Rand-inspired ideas on how to deal with the federal budget and the deficits it generated. But at a time when the Republican Party’s foundational principle was simply to make then-President Obama a one-termer, I respected the fact that he actually had ideas to put forth and debate. Most important, I admired that he had conviction, that his ideas sprang from deeply held beliefs. So deeply held that when he became budget committee chairman, his “road map” became the “Path to Prosperity” in April 2011.
Then, Ryan was tapped by Mitt Romney to be his vice presidential running mate in 2012. As I wrote then, “Where Romney has been maddeningly vague, Ryan has been painfully specific. Where Romney has been ideologically promiscuous, Ryan has been steadfast.” Ryan’s deficit hawkishness continued unabated after he was elected speaker of the House in 2015. But a funny, no, discouraging thing happened after the election of President Trump. The Paul Ryan many admired for his moral and ideological convictions went missing.
"I'm going to leave it to the president to talk about and defend his tweets,” Ryan told reporters in Wisconsin in May 2017. In the face of more behavior unbecoming the Oval Office by Trump, Ryan tut-tutted to Mark Leibovich of the New York Times last August, “He’s just trolling you guys.” Adding that Trump “just wants to see your heads explode, and he just wants you to spend the next 12 hours talking about this.” That very well may be true. But such behavior called for grown-up leadership from the third-in-line to the presidency.
Ryan did show a few signs of life on this front. During the campaign, when Trump said a federal judge’s Mexican heritage presented an “absolute conflict” of impartiality in a against him, Ryan described what then-candidate Trump said as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” When Trump said he would end birthright citizenship, Ryan said, “You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order.” When the president shamefully blamed “both sides” for the white supremacist horror in Charlottesville in 2017, Ryan wrote on Facebook, “The views that fueled this spectacle are repugnant” and “there is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis.”
Yet, in all three examples, Ryan didn’t go far enough. In the first instance, Trump was still a candidate. No one thought he’d win so no need to say more. But in that Facebook post, Ryan didn’t even mention now-President Trump by name. And when he was asked at a CNN town hall if he would ask the president to apologize, Ryan said, “I think just he needs to do better.” Or in the case of the executive order, Ryan made a process argument against the president’s proposal rather than one of moral suasion.
And then there was Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. According to a 2018 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the law will add $1.9 trillion to the national deficit over the next 10 years. That sound you hear is the wings of a self-proclaimed deficit hawk being voluntarily clipped. But Ryan is proud of the tax changes, saying in his retirement announcement on April 11, 2018, saying they are one of “the two biggest accomplishments for me.”
All that ideological and moral conviction that were the foundation of his popularity and power in Washington seemed to fall apart when it hit the cinder block wall that was President Trump. “I’m very comfortable with the decisions I’ve made,” Ryan told Leibovich. “I would make them again, do it again the same way.”
Given what we’ve seen and been through as a nation, that’s beyond disturbing. And another reason to be glad the Democrats have retaken the House and are poised to hand the speaker’s gavel back to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
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