House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has spent the better part of his political career trying to shred America’s social safety net, so that literally tens of millions of Americans would lose supports they use to get food, health care and pay their most basic bills.
Ryan, who announced Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election this fall, mostly hasn’t succeeded in this effort. But he has left an indelible impact on the Republican Party’s identity.
As an architect of the GOP’s budget blueprints, its vice presidential nominee in 2012 and the leader of the House’s majority caucus since 2015, Ryan has laid out a detailed, sweeping agenda of lower taxes and government spending. If ever fully enacted, it would arguably amount to the most radical domestic policy overhaul since the mid-1960s.
Ryan’s one big victory was on taxes ― he was instrumental in writing and passing the bill that President Donald Trump signed late last year. It will dramatically reduce what the wealthiest Americans pay, realizing one of Ryan’s long-held dreams.
But so far, at least, Republicans haven’t privatized Medicare, repealed the Affordable Care Act, or transformed programs like food stamps into smaller, state-run initiatives. And while most Republicans still endorse these proposals, the public does not.
Ultimately, that could be Ryan’s true legacy: Tethering his party to an extreme, deeply conservative agenda that the public rejects, starting with the November midterm elections.
Ryanism, Randism, And Republicans
Ryan first gained national attention in 2010 at a televised, bipartisan meeting on the effort to pass then-President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill. He’d been a representative for about a decade then. He distinguished himself among GOP attendees at the session with Obama for his knowledge of policy intricacy and ability to articulate a deeply conservative vision of government that would spend and do much less.
The ensuing midterms gave Republicans control of the House and gave Ryan, incoming chairman of the budget committee, a chance to flesh out that agenda. The resulting proposal, known as the “Path to Prosperity,” called for giving states more flexibility to administer programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, typically referred to as food stamps.
Ryan’s ideas for those programs built on the concept of “welfare reform” legislation Congress passed in 1996, which put a lid on federal funding and delegated more authority to states ― ultimately resulting in far fewer eligible Americans receiving benefits. Ryan had worked on Capitol Hill as a staffer at the time.
Perhaps the most striking element of Ryan’s proposal was its call to reinvent Medicare, the wildly popular program for the elderly that politicians attack at their own peril.
Ryan promised not to alter the program for people currently on it or within 10 years of eligibility. But he proposed to treat future beneficiaries differently, providing them with a voucher for private insurance rather than a guarantee of benefits. Over time, the voucher would lose value relative to health care costs, experts predicted, so that seniors would be increasingly responsible for their own medical bills.
After Ryan released a slightly revised version of the budget one year later, Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, called it “a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature.”
If enacted, Greenstein warned, it would produce “the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history,”
Ryan insisted such redistribution would ultimately leave the poor better off, in part by improving the economy as a whole. But he also justified his agenda in moral terms, speaking frequently about “makers” (i.e., people who work and earn good incomes) and “takers” (i.e., lazy people who subsist on government assistance).
Ryan has cited Ayn Rand, the libertarian philosopher, as a major influence. At a 2005 conference, audio of which the Atlantic eventually obtained, he said, “It is the morality of what is occurring right now, and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack, and it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on.”
After the 2012 presidential election, Ryan made a concerted effort to put the makers-and-takers rhetoric behind. He traveled the country visiting private-sector charities that rehabilitated drug addicts and helped them find jobs.
But his agenda never really changed.
The poverty tour resulted in a book and a new policy pitch that simply applied the “welfare reform” playbook to all federal poverty programs, albeit with a greater emphasis on case management for poor people.
And just last year, during a public discussion of Medicaid with National Review editor Rich Lowry, he remarked that “we’ve been dreaming” about cuts to such social programs “since you and I were drinking out of a keg.”
Ryan As The Wonk King
Ryan was hardly the first Republican to call for a sweeping rollback of New Deal and Great Society programs. Ryan’s agenda was in many ways a direct descendant of the plans that Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican, proposed and tried to enact when he became House Speaker in 1995.
But quite unlike Gingrich, who was famous for his rhetorical and stylistic intemperance, Ryan cultivated an image as a calm, serious thinker ― and as a candid one, too. Over and over again Ryan warned of a “debt crisis” and, sometimes, blamed previous GOP congressional leaders for their complicity in making deficits bigger during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Ryan frequently presented his plans as an attempt to restore fiscal order and gained a reputation as a serious fiscal hawk. In 2011, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget gave Ryan one of its “fiscy” awards.
That recognition did not age well. Ryan turned out to be as committed to fiscal responsibility as his Republican predecessors were ― which is to say, he wasn’t very committed at all, as a handful of critics had long warned. (One of them was New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who in 2010 called Ryan a “flimflam man.”) Although he didn’t like to advertise it, he too had voted for those deficit-busting proposals of the Bush era.
And once Ryan was in charge of writing GOP budgets, starting in 2011, he relied heavily on generous assumptions about economic growth and unspecified spending cuts that nobody seriously believed Congress would make.
An Extreme Agenda ― And An Unpopular One
When Trump became president, Ryan finally had the opportunity he’d coveted for so long ― a chance to use his blueprint and transform public policy. On taxes he got his way, more or less. Although the final bill did not enact many of the changes he desired, it gave enormous new breaks to the very wealthiest Americans, while handing only a pittance to the middle class.
The new law’s corporate tax cut is permanent, while the individual tax cuts aren’t ― which means that the majority of Americans would actually end up paying more, although Republicans have made clear their hopes that lawmakers will eventually make those cuts permanent, as well.
The tax cuts are likely to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office. If all the reductions become permanent, the impact will be even larger.
Ryan’s assault on government programs fared rather differently.
Immediately after Trump’s election, Ryan joined with his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to vow immediate action on repealing the Affordable Care Act. But although wiping out “Obamacare” had become the GOP’s defining cause, and one Trump had identified as his top priority, multiple efforts to pass sweeping repeal bills failed.
The bill shepherded through the House couldn’t get Senate approval, the Senate couldn’t come together on its own measure, and in the end Republicans had to settle on repeal of the law’s individual mandate, the financial penalty for people who don’t have coverage. That’s a meaningful change to the law, and one that conservatives celebrated, but it leaves most of the Affordable Care Act’s edifice in place.
The effort didn’t fail by much. A key Senate bill fell just one vote short when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a dramatic, unexpected thumbs down on the floor. But by then the measure was already deeply unpopular and it was no surprise why.
For all of the Affordable Care Act’s shortcomings and despite the public’s decidedly mixed feelings about it, people overwhelmingly supported the new protections for pre-existing conditions and the expansion of insurance ― through both Medicaid and subsidized private coverage ― that had put medical care within reach for millions.
Most Republicans haven’t given up on repeal, or the rest of Ryan’s agenda for that matter. If Republicans continue to hold governing majorities in Congress, they will have yet another opportunity to enact at least some of his proposals, carrying on Ryan’s crusade while he cheers on from the sidelines.
But especially if Republicans lose a house of Congress, and maybe even if they don’t, the programs that Ryan has targeted may be safe ― at least for now. His ideas won’t go away. But their popularity, or lack thereof, remains clear.