Paul Ryan’s farewell tour is going about as well as you might imagine. The retiring speaker of the House, who made a career out of promoting his aw-shucks humility, has presided over the revealing of not one but three painted portraits of himself. In less-controlled settings, his interviews with media outlets have, rather than provide a victory lap, only served to highlight the emptiness of Ryan’s words and the failures of his time in office. Speaking of those empty words, Ryan was also set to leave us with a formal farewell address at the Library of Congress earlier this week ― until George H.W. Bush’s funeral threw off the plans. It was yet another reminder that history has rarely been on Ryan’s side.
Not surprisingly, that’s not Ryan’s own assessment of his time in public life. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Ryan blithely proclaimed that “history is going to be very good to this majority” ― the same majority that had just suffered the worst Republican losses since Watergate. Like so many of Ryan’s supposed grand ideas, the comment was little more than mere grandstanding. And it betrayed what has always been at the heart of his rise to power and his fall: a plain disconnection from the reality around him.
Given the breathless media coverage Ryan enjoyed throughout his career, it’s perhaps remarkable how thoroughly both pundits and partisans are now ragging on him. Criticism from places like Salon and Vanity Fair was predictable, but conservative voices have also joined in, such as the libertarian outlet Reason, which pronounced Ryan an “abject failure,” and the conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, who provided a scathing review of his tenure. “Good riddance, Paul Ryan,” a headline in The Week happily announced.
From his entrance onto the national political stage in 1998 when he won a seat in Congress from his moderate district in Wisconsin, Ryan has presented himself as a serious policy wonk and a devoted disciple of Reaganomics. At the end of the 20th century, anyone spouting faith in trickle-down economics should have been roundly dismissed, but the media lapped it up. Ryan was portrayed as the bright new hope of the GOP, although it was as much his youthful looks and biceps that earned him that honor as it was his questionable ideas.
The irony was that while Ryan’s Randian ideas put him on the back end of history, the actions he took in Congress put him squarely within the Republican Party’s profligate ways during the George W. Bush years. Ryan went along with Bush’s massive government expansion and big spending, supporting the president’s reckless wars and voting for costly programs of varying merit, including a Medicare expansion, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act and the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
None of that stopped Ryan from cultivating his image as a deficit hawk at the same time. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Ryan threw his sermonizing into overdrive, appearing nonstop on Fox News and other conservative outlets to warn about how the new president’s budget plans would drive the economy into a ditch, as if he hadn’t helped Bush do just that for the previous eight years.
But that blindness ― or, more accurately, hypocrisy ― never proved a handicap for Ryan. Indeed, it was essential to his rise to power, from House Budget Committee chairman in 2011, to being chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, to taking the speakership in 2015.
It also perfectly primed him for the Trump era, where the Republican Party’s duplicity wasn’t so much exposed as it was exploited for electoral effect. Another speaker ― say, one in the mold of Tip O’Neill or even John Boehner ― might have seized the opportunity to stand up to a president like Trump. In doing so, Ryan could have safeguarded his supposed principles while also planting the seeds for a future presidential run as a true conservative.
Instead, Ryan rolled over for Trump, allowing and even protecting his worst abuses of office. While Ryan occasionally slapped Trump on the wrist, like his scolding of Trump’s lovefest with Vladimir Putin last summer, such moments only highlighted Ryan’s willing collusion with Trump’s broader assault on American democracy.
Ryan refused to pass legislative protection for special counsel Robert Mueller or to establish a select committee for investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 election. He allowed Devin Nunes to continue serving as chair of the House intelligence committee even after tape recordings showed Nunes pledging to protect the president over the Constitution and after Nunes publicly worked to discredit the FBI and other law enforcement. And Ryan turned a blind eye rather than conducting oversight of the numerous scandals emerging from the Trump White House, including improper handling of security clearances and mounting financial scandals.
That Ryan did nothing to pressure Trump into cutting ties to his businesses or stop earning foreign emoluments, a plain violation of the Constitution, looks all the more devastating in light of the news this week that Saudi-financed lobbyists have shelled out thousands of dollars for more than 500 nights of reservations at Trump’s D.C. hotel.
But Ryan allowed it all in order to get his treasured tax cut package, a disastrous piece of legislation that threw billions to Wall Street at the expense of ordinary Americans, like his own constituents back in Wisconsin.
Yet those facts probably won’t stop Ryan from taking some pundit spot on Fox News or at a conservative think tank where he’ll make good money shilling the same ideas he sold out. As the Trump presidency and the GOP continue to fall apart, Ryan will likely be hailed again for his intellectual clout, the kind of grown-up who could steer the party back to sound conservatism.
Too bad that throughout his career, Paul Ryan showed he was not so much a policy genius as he was a political hack. It’s just that in the eyes of a Republican Party that has capitulated to Trump at almost every turn, those are one and the same.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”