Remember that moment in 2012 when he was introduced as Mitt Romney’s running mate — the energetic, smart young guy in the suit coat that seemed a bit too big for him?
For years he had been an intellectual leader among conservatives and the conscience of the GOP on fiscal issues. With dogged wonkery, he pushed Republicans into addressing thorny issues such as entitlements, deficits and what he warned was an impending debt crisis. He was not only an attractive candidate but also one of the most serious and substantive members of Congress. Ryan was, in other words, the complete package.
And that’s exactly what I thought when I first met him more than 20 years ago back in Wisconsin, before he ran for Congress. He looked like he was 17 years old, but after talking with him for five minutes, I thought: This guy has the political savvy and the personality to go a very long way. Obviously, I had no idea how far that would be.
Or how badly it would end.
But then nobody really saw Donald Trump coming. Or thought that Republican voters would so thoroughly reject Ryan’s brand of conservatism in favor of Trump’s nativism and nationalism. Or that voters would prefer Trump’s bluster and pugilism over Ryan’s personal decency and substantive approach to issues. Or that Ryan himself would surrender.
It seems almost superfluous to point out that the GOP is Trump’s party now, because it has been Trump’s party since 2016.
But in a sense, it is also Ryan’s party, because his decision to make a Faustian bargain with Trump has also shaped conservatism’s trajectory.
In temperament, style and substance, Ryan was the anti-Trump. For much of 2016, he pushed back against Trump, forcefully denouncing his proposed Muslim travel ban and withholding his endorsement. After the release of the “Access Hollywood” recording of Trump’s repellent comments about mistreating women, Ryan disinvited Trump from an event in Wisconsin and essentially cut himself loose from Trump’s candidacy.
But, like the rest of the GOP, Ryan came around, becoming an ally, a cheerleader, an enabler. “We’re with Trump,” Ryan declared a year after the election. “That’s a choice we made during the campaign, which is we merged our agendas.”
Perhaps it’s naive to think that Ryan could have stemmed the tide of the GOP’s capitulation, but it remains a tantalizing what-might-have-been. Ryan could have articulated an alternative vision of conservatism, untainted by Trump’s ugly xenophobia, recklessness and isolationism. Had he led a principled opposition to Trumpism, Ryan might have emboldened others to find their spines and their voices. But who knows?
Opposing Trump might have cost Ryan the speakership, but it would also have created a legacy very different from the one he now has.
That’s what made watching Ryan’s farewell speech so dispiriting. He was the future that we never got to see.
Even by his own standards, Ryan’s tenure has been a disappointment. I lost count of how many times he came on a radio talk show I hosted in Wisconsin to discuss the looming debt crisis or the need to tackle entitlements. These were the defining issues of his career, and he has the charts to prove it. That Ryan now leaves office, with trillion-dollar deficits and entitlements untouched, is one of the more disconcerting aspects of our bizarre political world.
Given Trump’s own indifference to fiscal sanity, Ryan might have had relatively few options. But the same cannot be said about his silence or his capitulation.
In his farewell address, Ryan said: “The state of politics these days is another question, and frankly one I don’t have an answer for.” The line was as poignant as it was ironic, given the gap between the role he could have played and the one he actually played.
It was a despairing shrug from a man near the pinnacle of political power.
So, I keep coming back to the question: What would have happened if he had pushed back against the insults, the bullying, the demagoguery? What if Ryan had made the case for free markets, asserted the independence of Congress, defended the United States’ allies, denounced Trump’s racism and resisted his culture of mendacity?
Instead, Ryan not only bit his tongue but also allowed legislative trolls such as Devin Nunes to become accomplices in Trump’s rolling obstruction of justice. History is unlikely to be kind.
Of course, Ryan’s harshest critics see all of this as inevitable. But it wasn’t. It was a choice by one of the brightest, most decent and thoughtful political figures of our time. And it was heartbreaking.