Ryan had two great causes as a leader of Republicans: cutting taxes for the wealthy and undermining the American safety net. He succeeded on the first and largely failed — fortunately — on the second. And he oversaw a ballooning of the deficit yet somehow continued to convince people that he was an ardent deficit hawk.
Here’s something important to keep in mind when considering how political figures approach the question of government spending: Anyone who calls themselves a “deficit hawk,” but only wants to cut programs they don’t like anyway, is absolutely full of it. This applies to almost the entire Republican Party, but no one more than Ryan. Nobody talked more passionately about how the debt was endangering our grandchildren’s future, but did he ever suggest cutting defense spending or increasing taxes to address this supposedly urgent crisis? Of course not. The “real” problem, he’d always say if you suggested such a thing, is liberal safety net programs.
And Ryan’s perspective on the budget and the economy always depended on who was president. When George W. Bush was in office, Ryan lauded the idea of goosing the economy with government stimulus and supported large initiatives like the Medicare prescription drug benefit that were financed by deficit spending. As soon as Barack Obama took office, however, like other Republicans Ryan became a bitter opponent of government stimulus and deficit spending, even in the face of the worst economic crisis the country had seen in 80 years.
Through the Obama years, Ryan released a series of budget documents touted as plans for deficit reduction, but which were in fact blueprints to redistribute wealth upward. They invariably called for tax cuts for the wealthy combined with brutal cuts to social programs, and claimed to achieve balanced budgets even though they were filled with magic asterisks in which tough decisions about unspecified tax offsets would be figured out at some later date.
Invariably, liberal commentators would point out what a scam the whole thing was, yet mainstream reporters continued to describe Ryan as a serious policy wonk with the courage to say what others wouldn’t. Ryan’s slightly more clever version of the same swindle the rest of his party was pulling earned him adulation from a media desperate to describe budget debates as arguments between two equally meritorious perspectives. But as Paul Krugman put it, though there were no actual honest conservatives when it came to the budget, “the narrative required that the character Ryan played exist, so everyone pretended that he was the genuine article.”
In his farewell speech, Ryan expressed regret that his project of balancing the budget by eviscerating social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security ran into too much public opposition to succeed:
Ultimately, solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today. I regret that. But when the time comes to do this — and it will — the path ahead will be based on the framework we have laid out to solve this problem. We can get there. We really can tackle this problem before it tackles us.
The “framework” he refers to — cutting taxes for the wealthy while cutting social programs for everyone else — is certainly as alive as ever in the GOP.
Right now the Trump administration is trying to expand work requirements for recipients of Medicaid and food stamps, which rather than help people earn an income are really about kicking as many people as possible off the program by forcing them to navigate a bureaucratic maze, with the slightest slip-up potentially resulting in a loss of benefits.
That’s a Paul Ryan special, driven by the idea that the rich have proved their moral superiority by being rich and should therefore be larded with all the help the government can muster, while the poor are lazy and corrupt, and can be helped only by a healthy dose of punishment and shaming. Ryan grew up an admirer of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness and contempt for the lower classes; he said in 2003 that “I give out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it.” As a precocious young man, he fantasized about taking health insurance away from poor Americans: “Medicaid, sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate, we’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg,” he said last year.
Can’t I say anything nice about Ryan? Sure. I’ll grant that though he might have been as partisan as anyone else, he was usually uninterested in tossing about nasty attacks on his opponents; rhetorically speaking, he was polite and well-mannered, at least most of the time (though one does recall the time in 2016 he said Barack Obama “degrades the presidency” because Obama criticized Donald Trump’s racist attacks on immigrants). And it’s true that what he really cared about was policy.
The problem, though, is that his policy agenda was unceasingly vicious and cruel. Had he succeeded in full, the amount of human suffering he would have caused would have been positively monumental: millions more without health coverage, millions more without the ability to feed their families, millions more without retirement security, all with nothing to comfort them but some stern lectures about the value of personal responsibility and vigorous bootstrap-pulling.
The wealthy and corporations, on the other hand, never had a truer friend. Even apart from his deficit flimflammery, that is Ryan’s true legacy.