Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, is leaving the position of speaker of the House with broad goodwill from professional Republicans but vocal criticism from three groups of people.
Liberals always opposed him and resented what they considered his unearned reputation for idealism and intelligence. They like him even less now that he has spent more than a year working with President Donald Trump. Many of the hardy band of Trump critics on the right also fault him for not standing up to the president. Some of Trump’s strongest supporters, on the other hand, fault him for having criticized Trump, failed to send him more legislative accomplishments to sign, or squelched the president’s distinctive agenda.
Trump himself treated Ryan warmly when the latter announced that he will not run for another term in Congress. Conservatives should be grateful to Ryan, too — at least if they believe, as they should, that the old Reaganite faith, however it may need modifying or updating, still has much to recommend it. Ryan has helped to keep it alive.
He even did some of the necessary updating himself. That point flies in the face of the caricature of him as a rigid adherent of 1980s-era orthodoxy, but it’s true. Entitlement reform wasn’t a major part of the Reaganite agenda. The growth of Social Security and Medicare has raised its importance for limited government in our era, and Ryan responded by devising and evangelizing for thoughtful plans to contain their growth. Contrary to another caricature, these plans included protections to avoid disrupting retirement plans, especially of those with low incomes.
Ryan was also willing to modify his own approach. His first Obama-era budget plan included a model of tax reform that cut tax rates by an unrealistically large amount for the highest earners in the country and shifted more of the tax burden onto parents. The tax legislation he ended up getting through Congress a few months ago, on the other hand, cut taxes roughly proportionally for all income groups and provided tax relief for parents. After the 2012 campaign, he abandoned, and apologized for, rhetoric that seemed to suggest that people who received government benefits were at fault for holding the country back.
He altered his plan for Medicare after hearing out criticisms of the first version. His ideas for replacing Obamacare evolved, too. Originally he called for a reform that would have moved many people from employer coverage to the individual market; he eventually embraced a more incremental kind of free-market reform.
Some of these shifts were, however, too little and too late. Republicans, including Ryan, had already gotten a reputation for being too solicitous of the interests of the rich, too devoted to abstract economic principles, too detached from the circumstances of most people — especially most people without college degrees. Ryan’s enthusiasm for immigration strengthened that impression and put him at odds with most conservative voters.
A major reason Trump was able to capture the Republican nomination is that the party’s old policy agenda — the mix of free trade, deregulation, entitlement reform, tax cuts, and high immigration — had less purchase on its voters than its politicians, including Ryan, had believed. Trump’s success suggested that Republicans needed to take a tougher line on immigration and put forward an agenda with more to offer working-class voters.
But Trump did not come to the White House with such an agenda, or any agenda. Even on immigration, his signature issue, he had careened during the campaign from calling for mass deportation of illegal immigrants to tacitly accepting that most of them will stay. He had offered mixed signals on whether he wanted to reduce overall immigration levels. Perhaps an agenda that productively synthesized Ryan’s limited-government principles and Trump’s nationalist political impulses was possible. (I argued as much in these pages after Trump won the election.) But Trump was not going to come up with such an agenda himself, or be persuaded to embrace one for very long. The president’s political talents lie elsewhere.
Because Trump’s political views are protean, it was unclear in what direction his administration would go. Many Democrats worried that he would start his term by pushing for a big-spending infrastructure bill that would split their party, give him an early bipartisan win, boost his popularity, and enhance his ability to strike a deal with them on health care. Those moves would have been consistent with what he said during his campaign, and with the general theme that he was more interested in taking steps to help the working class than in sticking with Republican dogma.
The Republican party would probably be in better shape for the midterm elections if Trump had taken this course. But it would also have moved further away from the conservatism of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan and toward a marriage of activist government and nationalism. Reducing the size and scope of the federal government would no longer have been even an aspiration for any major political force in American life.
But Trump’s first year did not go that way. There were many reasons it didn’t. Trump’s own lack of sustained interest in a policy agenda was an important one. He didn’t come to office with a commitment to a particular set of infrastructure policies or a strategy for acting on them. He had no particular health-care deal in mind. He hired only a few people who wished to make the party more nationalist and less free-market. They were vastly outnumbered by conventionally conservative Republicans.
Ryan was another reason the Republican agenda, and particularly its legislative agenda, took the form it did. No Republican speaker of the House has had as clear a sense of the direction in which he wanted to move public policy since Newt Gingrich resigned 20 years ago. It was Ryan, more than anyone else, who ensured that Congress would spend 2017 trying first to make health policy more market-oriented and then to pass a partisan tax-reform bill.
Neither piece of legislation was everything Ryan, or other market conservatives, wanted. They were constrained by certain political and institutional realities, such as the Senate’s rules about what kinds of legislation can trigger filibusters. But both advanced important conservative objectives. While the health legislation failed in the Senate, the House passed a bill that would have allowed for more flexibility in insurance arrangements, devolved power to state governments, reduced premiums, and even reformed an entitlement, Medicaid. Congressional Republicans and Trump’s aides were able to move the president away from his campaign pledges to leave that program alone. The main drawback to the bill was that it would have somewhat reduced the number of Americans with health insurance, although critics vastly exaggerated the size of this effect.
The nationalist/populist critique of Ryan’s performance since Trump’s election, which blames him for wasting months on a failed effort to reform health care rather than on, say, funding a border wall, is thus partly correct. It’s not completely correct, because it’s not Ryan’s fault that Trump seems to care little about government policy. But the fact that Ryan was ready to move forward with his own ideas reduced Trump’s ability to remake the Republican party.
As Ryan leaves, the Republican future will remain up for grabs. While there is still not much of a distinctively Trumpist agenda, the pre-Trump conservative agenda has run out of steam, too. Ryan wanted congressional Republicans to turn to welfare reform in 2018, but the bulk of the party seems to have concluded that they would rather not advance any big legislation after the tax cut. Republicans retain enormous power in Washington but have no particular uses for it. The party is out of ideas, and its ideas guy is retiring.
Someone else will have to come up with the next Republican agenda. Ryan’s tenure has increased the likelihood that it will be rooted in the same principles that have animated post-war American conservatism from its start.