Paul Ryan, as he’d be the first to tell you, didn’t want this job.
When John Boehner decided he was sick of trying to keep the government functioning while appeasing hardcore conservatives in his caucus, everyone assumed that Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, would succeed him as speaker. But when rumors of infidelity pushed McCarthy out of the race, the result was utter chaos. Vox’s headlines that week included “Kevin McCarthy pulls out of speaker race, throws GOP into chaos” and “Why the House GOP is such a shitshow.” Even though Boehner and McCarthy both said Ryan was their preferred candidate, Ryan still refused to run.
It was a dramatic, ego- and profile-boosting series of events. Ryan established for all to see that he, and he alone, could unite the warring factions of the Republican Party and bring peace to the land. In an impossible situation that the more timid and feckless John Boehner was fleeing, only Paul Ryan could get things done.
Now, barely two months into Donald Trump’s administration, when Republicans control both houses of Congress and still failed to repeal Obamacare, the whole world is seeing Ryan unmasked.
It is literally the whole job of speakers to usher through controversial bills
Paul Ryan had a tough job. I get that, I really do. Sure, Republicans had taken vote after vote about repealing Obamacare, but that was while Obama was still president and passing repeal legislation was just cheap talk that nobody expected to go anywhere. Talking health care away from millions of people to cut taxes for millionaires is hard (and it should be hard).
But trying as speaker of the House to pass big, transformative legislation is always hard, and people in the past have done it. Nancy Pelosi got the stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and even a cap-and-trade plan through. John W. McCormick oversaw the passage of Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the immigration reform act of 1965, and more.
Even less successful speakers have been able to corral their caucuses at critical moments. Dennis Hastert and his majority leader, Tom DeLay, pushed through Medicare Part D against strong conservative opposition. Newt Gingrich didn’t get his Contract With America agenda passed, but he did get welfare reform, capital gains cuts, and a balanced budget. Tip O’Neill passed a bill slashing Social Security benefits and raising payroll taxes, and another simplifying the tax code and slashing a variety of popular deductions, even though he couldn’t stop Reagan’s early budget and tax cuts.
This is the job. You have to be able to impose party discipline by crafting proposals that can appeal broadly across your caucus but still stand a chance in the Senate and White House. And when your proposal inevitably prompts dissent, you need to be able to persuade, cajole, or, when necessary, bribe through giveaways to people’s districts in order to secure a majority. The alternative is to just go through the motions without passing anything of real importance, and at that point there’s just no reason to be in politics anymore.
And in his first major test, Ryan has not shown the ability of even a Hastert or a Gingrich. The haphazard, chaotic nature of this process suggests he has a chance of becoming the single least effective speaker in decades.
Paul Ryan became famous for skills totally unrelated to being speaker
Paul Ryan is very talented at some things. I disagree with him on almost everything, but his ability to develop a reputation among conservative intellectuals, with his peers in Congress, and with the press as someone with serious ideas on fiscal policy and willing to propose “tough measures” (read: massive cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and every anti-poverty program you can imagine) is genuinely impressive, especially since those proposals often are morally horrifying and don’t add up.
His ability to parlay that reputation into a slot as Mitt Romney’s running mate, and then speaker, is even more impressive. And he has already had a substantial policy impact. It’s doubtful that John Boehner and President Obama would have attempted a “grand bargain” to cut entitlements if Ryan hadn’t become the Republicans’ main voice on entitlement issues through his role on the Budget Committee. And without the grand bargain attempt, you don’t get the massive cuts of sequestration that really have shrunk government across the board for four years now.
There is some politics-related skill that Paul Ryan definitely has in spades. But it’s not passing bills. And as former Harry Reid senior adviser Adam Jentleson noted in a tweetstorm, the skills Ryan does have don’t really map onto what speakers have to do:
A leader's most valuable resource is time, and TV is time-consuming. It's less time spent listening to members, organizing, planning... 7/— Adam Jentleson (@AJentleson) March 24, 2017
Remember, Ryan’s budgets never became law — and they never had a chance of becoming law. They all passed while Obama was in office, and most passed the House when there was a Democratic Senate. The budgets were always DOA. So while year after year Ryan got members of his party to come together to vote for a budget reflecting his policy vision, all he was essentially doing was coordinating messaging.
Ryan has never really had to do the behind-the-scenes corralling that being speaker entails. What he is good at, as Jentleson notes, is doing media, but that’s peripheral to the job. The president and his team can do media; the speaker stays low-profile and does the work. Nancy Pelosi is famously hard to interview, and was never a favorite among reporters the way Ryan is. But she was a far more effective speaker.
The example that always comes to mind to me is one that Tom Perriello, a Democrat who served one term in the House from a very red district in Virginia from 2009 to 2011 (and is now running for governor) told Ezra Klein back in December 2010. Perriello was weighing whether to vote for the DREAM Act, which would legalize the status of undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. "There was the whole question of whether the Senate would support it," he told Klein. "And I didn't want to do this if it was just going to die in the Senate."
Then the lobbying started. “I got a call from [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan, and he began telling me about the individual anecdotes of guys that he worked with in Chicago who needed this legislation,” Perriello recalled. “There were strong Latino organizing networks that began moving, and someone I went to second grade with called and was like, ‘Tom, you might not vote for the DREAM Act? I know we haven't talked in 32 years, but...’ A few of my friends from college started to call. Several people contacted colleagues I’d had in past jobs, so now they’re writing me. ‘Dude, I haven't been following this, but I've heard from six people today that I have to call you about the DREAM Act. ...’”
This is how Pelosi whipped votes. She got the administration involved, she got outside groups involved, she got random figures from Congress members’ pasts involved. She was really, really good at it. And it all happened quietly, without anyone watching or applauding.
Paul Ryan did none of this. He didn’t, as Pelosi did, work to get key interest groups like pharma, the insurance companies, and the AARP on board. He didn’t have unanimity among conservative groups and funders the way she did with liberal ones. He didn’t take the time over months to individually lobby swing legislators the way Pelosi did so expertly. Instead, he tried to rush through legislation in a single week that the Heritage Foundation, the Koch brothers, the AARP, the American Medical Association — basically every think tank and interest group on either side of the aisle — vehemently opposed. It was ridiculous and amateurish.
Ryan needs to learn how to really build coalitions if he’s going to get anything done in the Trump years. And he needs to learn fast.