There’s a lot to be said about Paul Ryan’s retirement from the House, his legacy as speaker since 2015 and in House leadership since 2011, and what it all means for the 2018 elections and the future of the GOP. In looking back over his record as a leader, of course, it’s important to weigh what was politically possible to accomplish (both in terms of the GOP’s overall strength and its internal divisions) against what fights were worth having even if they lost.
In general, I like Ryan’s personal style — polite, thoughtful, decent, reasonable — and am sympathetic to his consensus-based team-player approach to political leadership, as well as his broader policy vision. Some of the things he’s been able to accomplish or prevent are more impressive than he’s given credit for. But for now, I’d like to focus quickly on one specific area where Ryan was clearly unsuccessful: spending.
Ryan’s great insight, which he preached at every opportunity, was that the biggest fiscal threat to the country — and the biggest contributor to runaway debt — was entitlement spending, which grows on autopilot and is not constrained by the availability of money to pay for it, either in terms of government revenue or the private-sector economic growth that produces government revenue. Our current trajectory of entitlement spending is unsustainable, and no amount of fixes to anything else government does (including taxes) is going to solve that. While other fiscal hawks complained about smaller but egregious instances of wasteful spending, Ryan kept his eye on the bigger game, preaching against the passage of Obamacare and making entitlement reform the centerpiece of his famous budget blueprint. Meanwhile, while he was part of the leadership team that negotiated the mostly successful sequester in 2011 (really the only instance of a successful negotiation with President Obama), he disdained fights on smaller spending priorities.
In the end, this approach proved misguided in two ways. One, Ryan never had the party’s broader support for tackling entitlements. Not only was he saddled with a president, in Donald Trump, who had campaigned against entitlement reform, but — forgotten now — his 2012 running mate, Mitt Romney, had savaged Rick Perry in 2012 for having written favorably about such reforms. Ryan himself had also voted for Medicare Part D back in 2003. (I will leave aside here the failure to repeal Obamacare, which had many fathers). So, while Ryan was right on the merits about the biggest fiscal problem, he was never able to mount an effective campaign either legislatively or in the public arena to solve the problem.
Meanwhile, Ryan never appreciated the symbolic or practical value of eliminating smaller but more specific areas of federal spending that were unnecessary, wasteful, or malignant. As a more junior congressman he went along with a lot of bad spending ideas during the Bush years, and as a leader he never picked fights that could be translated into a tangible result to report home (“look what nonsense we defunded!”) as opposed to more nebulous arguments about bending the overall rate of spending. The failure to zero out federal support for Planned Parenthood when the GOP controlled the House, then the House and Senate, and then even the House, Senate, and White House, was the most indefensible example of this.
Worse, over the past 15 months, Ryan failed to fix the system for budgeting, a goal that should have appealed to him as a Beltway veteran versed in the process from his time running the House Budget Committee. One of the reasons why it has been so hard to eliminate any individual category of spending is that the House deals only in massive all-or-nothing omnibus bills rather than break down appropriations into smaller pieces that can be individually debated and voted on. This excess of brinksmanship gives a massive structural advantage towards the passage of individual spending items that could not survive on their own, since the choice is literally one between shutting down the government and approving all the spending on everything. Of course, as the leader of the caucus, Ryan understood that those smaller fights could be politically painful for some of his members, but so is voting for a big, ugly omnibus, and the latter has no corresponding positives in terms of showing voters that the people they elected were actually serious about their promises on spending. (This is similar to the strategic failure on health care as well as the persistent and misguided effort to pass thousand-page “comprehensive” immigration bills.)
Politics is the art of the possible, and fiscal conservatives need to be realistic in their goals and demands. Many of the people on the right who were critical of Ryan on spending issues were never realistic about what their proposed efforts at brinksmanship could accomplish; they set their sights too high, and came home empty-handed as a result. But in his own sober, wonkish way, Ryan made the same mistake: He focused too much on long-term big-ticket fixes that weren’t politically doable, instead of repairing the budget process to deliver smaller but more tangible victories. That’s a shame, because the opportunity to do so may not pass this way again for a long time.