Paul Ryan's Dream Crushed

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, arrives to a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.,
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, arrives to a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 23, 2016. Ryan said that the day-long Democratic sit-in over gun curbs wouldn't change how Republicans run the House, dismissing it as a 'publicity stunt' that risks setting a dangerous precedent for U.S. democracy. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Paul Ryan reluctantly took the job of leading the House of Representatives because he had a dream he thought he could actually achieve. Ryan's dream went something like this: he'd whip his Republican caucus into shape, then they'd fall in behind him and help pass his dream GOP agenda as a series of bills -- all of which would be sent to the Senate. Of course they'd never reach President Obama's desk (for an almost-certain veto), but that wasn't the point. The point was to show the American electorate that Republicans had many good legislative ideas that could become reality with the election of a Republican to the White House. The entire exercise was to be Ryan's own personal party platform, in other words, designed to help Republican candidates win in the election. It would be the fulfillment of the promise Ryan represented to many Republicans when they convinced him to take the job -- that he was a wonky kind of guy who understood the ins and outs of the budget better than any other Republican in Washington.

Ryan's dream now lies in tatters. It has become something of a nightmare, really. In fact, Ryan has had no more success in getting his caucus to agree on anything than John Boehner managed. The latest example of this is currently unfolding before our eyes. Ryan is now struggling to deal with the gun control issue the Democrats have forced upon Congress. Senate Republicans rather skillfully turned the tables on Democrats after Chris Murphy launched a filibuster (to force Republicans to hold a vote). Murphy and the Senate Democrats wanted votes on two bills -- one to mandate universal background checks and one to prevent those on the No-Fly List from buying guns. Republicans countered with their own bills which would have achieved very little, but which were designed so they would have an answer to Democrats using the issue against them on the campaign trail -- "I did indeed vote to keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists, but I voted on the Republican bill, which was much better," they could claim to the voters. It's really rather basic politics. Co-opt an issue that can be used against you while watering it down to the point where it is pointless and cannot achieve the Democrats' stated goal. Which the Senate did -- the Democratic bill got Democratic votes, the Republican bill got Republican votes, and everybody gets to use the issue on the campaign trail (while nothing actually gets done).

Over in the House, Democrats also staged some political theater to force Ryan's hand. Their 25-hour sit-in protest certainly got the attention of the public. Ryan swore up and down that he wouldn't be pressured by such tactics, but then he suddenly announced that he would hold a vote -- but only on the Republican version of the "No Fly, No Buy" bill. So far, so good. Republicans could insulate themselves from Democratic attacks, while fully aware that whatever they passed would never even make it through the Senate. Traditional election-year politics, in other words.

But now Ryan has postponed even this vote -- because he can't get his team on the same page, once again. Conservatives are complaining the bill doesn't protect constitutional rights enough (even while ignoring the fact that the No-Fly List already restricts constitutional rights with no due process whatsoever). Other Republicans won't support the bill because it doesn't go far enough. The Tea Partiers, meanwhile, can't articulate what it is they dislike about the bill, but aren't going to support it. From the Washington Post article on Ryan's current problems: "[Tea Party] members would not support the bill unless they could make changes to it, although caucus co-founder Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said they do not yet have a specific list of amendments they want to receive a vote."

Remember, this is a bill that was written by Republicans over in the Senate and is nothing more than a pointless political exercise that is never going to become law. But Ryan can't even get his caucus together to successfully pull off a rather routine political stunt. Off in the distance, you can almost hear John Boehner laughing.

This isn't an isolated case, either. Ryan's big dream, if you'll remember, was to pass his legislative agenda in the form of six bills that would lay out his conservative ideology for the voters to bask in. There is nothing new in any of his proposals, it's worth mentioning -- they're all pretty straightforward GOP ideas from the past few decades. Massively cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Address poverty by gutting any federal programs designed to fix the problem, thus shredding the safety net even further. Replace Obamacare with a conservative health-care plan which involved vouchers that would steadily diminish in purchasing power, leaving most Americans without adequate insurance. Oh, and "block-grant" everything in sight, which would allow Republican governors to gut their own states' safety nets even further. Pretty run-of-the-mill conservative stuff, really.

The rest of Ryan's dream was more long-term. Once a Republican was safely in the White House, then his bills could actually become laws and Ryan would be the undeniable king of the budgetary process. Eventually he'd run for president himself, on the solid record of conservative achievements he had managed while he led the House.

While that "eventually run for president" idea is going to remain a Ryan dream for at least another four years, the rest of it has collapsed. Ryan can't get his Tea Partiers to agree on anything he's proposed, so he has been reduced to introducing his agenda as "white papers" which are so laughably vague that few are even paying Ryan's agenda the slightest attention. His plans have no numbers, no math, and no budget details. That's the only way he could get anyone in his own caucus to agree to back them.

But while Ryan is trying his best to gin up some excitement for his big agenda, what the press is most interested in is hearing Ryan denounce his own party's presidential candidate on a weekly basis. Ryan's answer about how Donald Trump badmouthing a "Mexican" judge (who was born in Indiana) was a "textbook example of racism" came during a dog-and-pony show Ryan was holding for the press to roll out one of his big six white papers. The quote became the story, and nobody wrote about his agenda idea at all.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," you can almost hear Ryan gloomily thinking to himself. The Republicans were supposed to nominate a normal candidate who would gladly welcome a pre-constructed conservative platform from Ryan, and who could be counted on to back it and eventually sign it all into law as president. Ryan was supposed to end up being the most powerful voice on Capitol Hill, and the entire exercise was supposed to all but guarantee a Republican president in November.

Then came Trump. Ryan quite obviously struggled with even endorsing his own party's candidate, taking weeks longer (than most timid Republican officeholders) to do so. Since he did, he has been subjected to exactly what he didn't want -- endless questions on: "What do you think of what Trump just said/did/tweeted?" Followed immediately by: "If you're denouncing Trump's statement, how can you continue to endorse him for the presidency?"

Ryan's not alone in this pickle. Plenty of other Republicans are being asked the same questions. This week, it is over Trump's use of a Star of David in a nasty tweet about Hillary Clinton. Next week, it'll be something even more outrageous (if the past is any prologue). Ryan's big agenda, meanwhile, gathers dust on reporters' shelves. After all, why write about the front office's new plans for ticket sales when there's a three-ring circus going on?

Paul Ryan is stuck between the rock of Donald Trump's continued campaign antics and the very hard place of Tea Party anarchy in the House. This is an even worse position than John Boehner ever faced, in fact. Boehner at least got out of Dodge before Trump rode into town, firing his rhetorical six-guns in every direction.

The sad irony in all this (for Ryan) is that he may be in an even worse position after the election. If Trump loses and Republicans suffer big losses all down the ballot, then the Senate (as well as the White House) may be in Democratic hands next year. The Republicans may still enjoy a majority in the House, but it'll likely be a lot smaller majority than Ryan now enjoys. This will only serve to embolden the Tea Party faction, since they will then have an even-stronger veto on anything Republicans propose. At the moment, Tea Partiers hold just enough votes to block bills they don't like, but with a few Democrats crossing the aisle Ryan can still pass important legislation. If the Tea Partiers still hold roughly the same number of votes, but in a smaller Republican majority, then they'll be able to dictate the terms of almost every bill Ryan wants to pass. Meaning Ryan will preside over another two years of absolute gridlock. Maybe the House will vote another 20 or 30 times to kill Obamacare, but that'll be about all Ryan will be able to achieve.

Paul Ryan's dream of proving to the country that Republicans have a positive agenda for the future is slowly being crushed between Tea Party intransigence and Donald Trump's Twitter account. If Ryan can't even get a bill passed which was designed to be no more than a political stunt to help Republicans get elected, then how is he going to pass his grand agenda -- or even pass a basic budget? It's pretty easy to see that the dream Ryan had when he accepted the job was nothing more than a classic case of self-delusion. Herding the Republican cats in the House has gotten no easier after Boehner stepped down, and that was before the rise of Trump even happened. Ryan can now look forward to long months spent explaining why he disagrees with his own party's presidential nominee, followed by either being replaced by Nancy Pelosi or presiding over an even more ungovernable House Republican caucus for the next few years. Rather than a dream agenda, Ryan now faces the same nightmare that Boehner fled.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant