House Speaker Paul Ryan’s legacy can be summed up in just one number: $343 billion.
That’s the increase between the deficit for fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2018 — that is, the difference between the fiscal year before Ryan became speaker of the House and the fiscal year in which he retired.
If the economy had fallen into recession between 2015 and 2018, Ryan’s record would be understandable. But it didn’t. In fact, growth quickened and the labor market tightened — which means deficits should’ve fallen. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened in each of the five years preceding Ryan’s speakership; from 2011 to 2015, annual deficits fell each year.
As he prepares to leave office, Ryan says that debt reduction is one of those things “I wish we could have gotten done.” Ryan, the man with the single most power over the federal budget in recent years, sounds like a bystander, as if he watched laws happen rather than made them happen.
To understand the irony and duplicity of that statement, you need to understand Ryan’s career. After the profligacy of the George W. Bush years and the rise of the Tea Party, Ryan rocketed to the top ranks of his party by warning that mounting deficits under President Obama threatened the “most predictable economic crisis we have ever had in this country.” Absent the fiscal responsibility that would accompany Republican rule, we were facing nothing less than “the end of the American dream.”
Ryan’s reputation was built on the back of his budgets: draconian documents that gutted social spending, privatized Medicare, and showed the Republican Party had embraced the kinds of hard fiscal choices that Bush had sloughed off. And Ryan presented himself as the wonkish apostle of this new GOP, rolling up his sleeves and running through the charts, graphs, and tables that made his case.
“I admit that in recent years Republicans abandoned these principles,” Ryan wrote in the book Young Guns, the 2010 GOP manifesto he co-authored with Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor. “We lost the true path and suffered electoral defeats. But we have not returned from this experience empty handed.”
What Republicans had returned with, according to Ryan, was a willingness to make hard choices. “It’s time politicians in Washington stopped patronizing the American people as if they were children,” he wrote. “It’s time we stop deferring tough decisions and promising fiscal fantasies.”
For this, Ryan was feted in Washington society; the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget gave him a “Fiscy” award for budget bravery; he was a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission (which he ultimately voted against); he became Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate. His reputation was so towering that when John Boehner stepped down as speaker, he told Ryan, “You’ve got to do this job.”
I was among the reporters who took Ryan’s reboot seriously. “To move us to surpluses,” I wrote of his 2010 proposal, “Ryan’s budget proposes reforms that are nothing short of violent. Medicare is privatized. Seniors get a voucher to buy private insurance, and the voucher’s growth is far slower than the expected growth of health-care costs. Medicaid is also privatized. The employer tax exclusion is fully eliminated, replaced by a tax credit that grows more slowly than medical costs.”
I didn’t agree with Ryan’s policies, but at least he was making the trade-offs of his vision clear. Here was a Republican who said what he was going to do, who admitted his health care plan included “rationing,” who offered something specific to argue with. That was progress.
But to critics like the New York Times’s Paul Krugman, Ryan was an obvious con man weaponizing the deficit to hamstring Obama’s presidency, weaken the recovery, and snooker Beltway centrists eager to champion a reasonable-seeming Republican. Ryan, after all, had voted for Bush’s deficits — he was a yes on the tax cuts, on the wars, on Medicare Part D. He proposed a Social Security privatization scheme so pricey that even the Bush administration dismissed it as “irresponsible.”
And his budgets, for all the hard choices, didn’t actually add up. They included massive tax cuts with underestimated costs and unspecified financing — which is what led Krugman to call him a charlatan back in 2010. Ryan waved this away as nitpicking. ”If needed,” his office said, “adjustments can be easily made to the specified rates to hit the revenue targets.” But his critics predicted he would lose his appetite for hard choices the moment his party returned to power. He hadn’t changed; he had merely rebranded.
The numbers proved them right. Ryan was elected speaker of the House on October 29, 2015. Over the next three years, annual deficits increased by almost 80 percent. The added debt is Ryan’s legacy, not his circumstance. It is entirely attributable to policy choices he made.
To Ryan’s supporters, this is unfair. “Being speaker of the House is the most Faustian job in history,” Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told me. “He’s done the best he can under these circumstances. Because he did one thing but didn’t do another, to say he never cared about the first thing is to misunderstand the choices, and to commit ad hominem arguments.”
I think that’s too kind. As speaker, Ryan had tremendous power. He could have, for instance, brought immigration compromises to the floor of the House but enforced congressional PayGo rules to bar any bills that increased the deficit from coming to a vote. Instead, he refused to bring immigration compromises to the floor while personally shepherding bills that betrayed the ideas that won him power. We are the choices we make — and Ryan made his.
To be clear, I am not particularly concerned about deficits right now, just as I wasn’t in 2010. But I took Ryan seriously when he said he was. I covered the arguments Ryan made, the policies he crafted, and I treated them as if they offered a guide to how Republicans would govern. I listened when Ryan said things like, “In Europe, generations of welfare-dependent citizens are hurling Molotov cocktails because their governments can no longer fund their entitlement programs. We can’t let that happen here.”
Ryan’s office did not grant my request for an interview for this piece. But now, as Ryan prepares to leave Congress, it is clear that his critics were correct and a credulous Washington press corps — including me — that took him at his word was wrong. In the trillions of long-term debt he racked up as speaker, in the anti-poverty proposals he promised but never passed, and in the many lies he told to sell unpopular policies, Ryan proved as much a practitioner of post-truth politics as Donald Trump.
Paul Ryan’s three betrayals
Three bills in particular stand out in assessing Ryan’s record.
The first is the 2017 tax cut Ryan passed but didn’t pay for. His defenders note that early drafts of the tax cut bill included a border adjustment tax that would’ve made the package revenue-neutral, fulfilling Ryan’s promises. But that policy fell out of the legislation early on, and rather than replace it, Ryan pushed a plan that added $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years, and used accounting gimmicks to hide vastly larger increases tucked into the legislation’s long-term design. Now House Republicans, still under Ryan’s leadership, are agitating to make the tax cuts permanent, with a 20-year cost estimated at $4 trillion.
This is particularly galling given that Ryan’s initial star turn in Republican politics came through a misleading presentation accusing the Obama administration of using gimmickry to hide Obamacare’s true cost. (In reality, Obamacare was paid for and its costs have been even lower than promised.)
The second is the spending Ryan passed but didn’t pay for. Years of fiscal irresponsibility have sometimes permitted Republicans to be graded on a curve, where tax cuts can be charged to the national credit card and spending cuts are the true measure of policy steel. But even on this diminished measure, Ryan’s record betrayed his promises.
In March, Ryan pushed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill through the House, which included almost $300 billion in spending increases. New spending, it turned out, only had to be paid for so long as it was a Democratic president proposing or signing it.
“When you have power and need to make choices, those choices do reveal something about you,” says Yuval Levin, editor of the conservative policy journal National Affairs. “I think what they reveal is where the least common denominator is in the Republican Party. I think there’s no question that what Republicans do when we get power is supply-side tax cuts. That’s the wall I and others have been banging our heads into for years now.”
The third is the expansion of the earned income tax credit Ryan proposed but never even tried to pass. After the 2010 election, he went on a much-vaunted tour of American poverty, racking up positive press for expanding the boundaries of the possible under conservatism, and arguing for an enlarged EITC that would help childless adults.
The Obama administration quickly spied a possible compromise with Ryan, and sought to capitalize on it. But Ryan proved more interested in the praise than the policy.
“When we tried to get it into a negotiation, he refused,” says Jason Furman, who served as Obama’s chief economist. “It wasn’t in his tax plan. In $1.5 trillion in tax cuts, he somehow couldn’t find space for this $60 billion item. It’s just amazing.”
Speaker of the House actually is a powerful position in American politics
Ryan’s defenders portray him as a principled legislator trapped by the coalition he managed.
“Donald Trump was president of the United States, and that circumscribed Paul Ryan’s choices,” says Brooks. “You can dispute what he did, but he got as much of the loaf as he thought he could get given the factions of his caucus and Trump’s peculiarities. Did he like being speaker of the House? The results speak for themselves: He’s leaving.”
In this telling, Ryan’s principled vision was foiled by Trump’s ascendancy. Faced with a Republican president he had never expected, and managing a restive majority that mostly agreed on being disagreeable, Ryan defaulted to the lowest common denominator of Republican Party policy: unpaid-for tax cuts for the rich, increases in defense spending, and failed attempts to repeal Obamacare.
This is more or less the defense Ryan has offered of his tenure. “I think some people would like me to start a civil war in our party and achieve nothing,” he told the New York Times. Trump had no appetite for cutting entitlements, so Ryan got what he could, and he got out.
But would it have started a civil war in the Republican Party if the most publicly anti-deficit politician of his generation had simply refused to pass laws that increased the deficit? And even if it had, isn’t that the war Ryan had promised?
The question here is not why Ryan didn’t live up to a liberal philosophy of government; it’s why he didn’t live up to his own philosophy of government.
What’s more, Trump was clearly flexible when it came to policy. On the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised he wouldn’t cut Medicaid; as president, he endorsed legislation Ryan wrote that did exactly that. After winning the election, Trump promised he’d replace Obamacare with a plan that offered “insurance for everybody” with “much lower deductibles,” but he ultimately backed Ryan’s bill to take Obamacare away from millions and push the system toward higher-deductible plans. For Ryan to claim he was not driving the policy agenda in the Trump years is ridiculous.
Ryan proved himself and his party to be exactly what the critics said: monomaniacally focused on taking health insurance from the poor, cutting taxes for the rich, and spending more on the Pentagon. And he proved that Republicans were willing to betray their promises and, in their embrace of Trump, violate basic decency to achieve those goals.
Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, and post-truth politics
Ryan clearly wishes Donald Trump had lost the primary, and his early exit from the speakership reflects it. As such, a lot of the narrative around Ryan’s retirement has emphasized his discontinuities with Trump, and whether he did enough to voice them. In the New York Times, for instance, Mark Leibovich wrote:
As has been strenuously noted, Trump and Ryan are stylistic and philosophical opposites: Trump the blunt-force agitator vs. Ryan the think-tank conservative. Trump lashes out while Ryan treads carefully. Ryan still fashions himself a “policy guy” and a man of ideas: In high school, he read the conservative philosopher Ayn Rand and was captivated by her signature work, “Atlas Shrugged.” He bills himself as a guardian of the free-trading, debt-shrinking notions that Republican-led governments used to stand for before Trump crashed the tent.
But more important than the differences between Ryan and Trump are the similarities. Yes, Ryan is decorous and polite where Trump is confrontational and uncouth, but the say-anything brand of politics that so outrages Trump’s critics is no less present in Ryan’s recent history. How else can we read a politician who rose to power promising to reduce deficits only to increase them at every turn? Or a politician who raked in good press for promising anti-poverty policies that he subsequently refused to pass?
And as ridiculous as some of Trump’s claims have been, his baldfaced lies that his inauguration was better-attended than Obama’s was a less consequential violation of the truth than what Ryan said when asked about the tax bill: “I don’t think it will increase the deficit.” Note that the tax bill is already increasing the deficit.
Ryan’s campaign for his failed Obamacare repeal bill was thick with similarly brazen deceptions, like that the legislation would strengthen protections for preexisting conditions, when in fact it would gut them.
“What made Ryan attractive to analysts and journalists across the spectrum was that he’d engage in a thoughtful dialogue with you,” says Bob Greenstein, president of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “but that didn’t mean that 10 minutes later, in front of the cameras, he wouldn’t say something that was at best misleading and at worst invalid.”
In important ways, Trump is not a break from the Republican Party’s recent past but an acceleration of it. A party that acculturates itself, its base, and its media sphere to constant nonsense can hardly complain when other political entrepreneurs notice that nonsense sells and decide to begin marketing their own brand of flimflam.
Ultimately, Ryan put himself forward as a test of a simple, but important, proposition: Is fiscal responsibility something Republicans believe in or something they simply weaponize against Democrats to win back power so they can pass tax cuts and defense spending? Over the past three years, he provided a clear answer. That is his legacy, and it will haunt his successors.
Sooner or later, Trump’s presidency will end, and there will come a new generation of Republicans who want to separate themselves from the embarrassments of their party’s record. As Ryan did, they will present themselves as appalled by both their party’s past and the Democrats’ present, and they will promise to lead into a more responsible future. The first question they will face, and the hardest one to answer, will be: Why should anyone believe they’re not just another Paul Ryan?