You know it’s a peculiar election year when Mitt Romney and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) can agree that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is a “fraud.” But that label shouldn’t be reserved for Donald Trump alone. It’s also an apt description of the man Trump supplanted as the de facto leader of the party — Romney’s running mate in 2012, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis).
Indeed, years before Trump sold Republican primary voters on the myth of his own great success, Ryan sold a credulous Washington establishment on the notion that he was a serious thinker overflowing with political courage — a policy wonk uniquely willing to tackle tough issues such as entitlement reform. In the past month, however, it has become more obvious than ever that Ryan’s reputation is worth about as much as a degree from Trump University. Let’s review.
After a fleeting flirtation with principle, Ryan kicked off June by endorsing Trump for president. Despite his previous indication that Trump would have to change course to earn his support, Ryan’s endorsement came without any public concessions or reassurances from Trump. It also came after The Post reported in late 2013 that Ryan was embarking on a personal crusade to steer Republicans “away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the tea party” and toward a “more inclusive vision.”
A few weeks after bowing to Trump, Ryan did take a stand — against the historic sit-in on the House floor led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to demand a vote on gun legislation. Ryan derided the show of solidarity with victims of gun violence as a “publicity stunt” and warned ominously that in the future, “We will not take this. We will not tolerate this.” (But Ryan has said the House will vote on a GOP-sponsored gun bill this week.)
Lastly, there is Ryan’s supposed bread and butter: a policy agenda rolled out over the course of the month.
Ryan put forward a health-care proposal that was hyped as the long-awaited Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act, but the “plan” consisted largely of well-worn talking points instead of actual legislation. In a withering editorial titled “Paul Ryan’s flimsy health plan,” The Post’s editorial board described it as “less detailed in a variety of crucial ways than previous conservative health reform proposals,” while adding, “The outlines that the speaker did provide suggest that it would be hard on the poor, old and sick.”
He also released a tax reform proposal that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “isn’t detailed enough for a complete nonpartisan congressional analysis to verify the effect on the budget and on households.” The limited details he did provide, however, do not paint a pretty picture. It’s not just that Ryan proposes to slash rates for the rich and corporations. He also wants to create a new loophole for “pass-through” income, which is a feature of Trump’s proposal and the disastrous plan implemented by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) that has wrecked his state’s finances.
And perhaps most significantly, given his disavowal of his past “makers and takers” rhetoric, Ryan introduced an “anti-poverty” plan that would severely weaken the safety net for those living in poverty. The plan, according to Politico, is mostly “repackaged GOP proposals,” including cuts to unemployment assistance, Head Start and federal Pell Grants. With Ryan’s blue-collar home town of Janesville already suffering the consequences of corporate trade deals and other Ryan-backed economic policies that have eviscerated the city’s manufacturing base, TalkPoverty editor Greg Kaufmann writes that Ryan’s latest proposal demonstrates “his enduring disconnect from the people struggling in his own district and across America.”
None of this is new. Ryan has been selling snake oil for years — promising to “save” Medicare by privatizing it, boasting that he could balance the budget with tax cuts for the rich and without any cuts to defense spending, pretending to be a pragmatist while embracing the extreme ideological dogmas of Ayn Rand and the religious right. But his unearned standing as a serious and courageous leader in a sea of cynical hacks has persisted nonetheless. Even today, there are those who sympathize with Ryan, suggesting that he is somehow a victim of Trump and right-wing Republicans in Congress when, in fact, his leadership — and failures thereof — helped pave their path to power.
When he was nominated for vice president in 2012, I wrote that Ryan’s vision for the country isn’t courageous — it’s cruel. While that remains true four years later, it’s not only Ryan’s policy goals that need to be exposed for what they are. It’s also long past time for the political world to recognize that Ryan’s whole career, like Trump’s, is one big con.