Postmodern Conservative

Paul Ryan Is a Divider

Unifying figure, alienating agenda

The latest poll shows that House Speaker Paul Ryan has a mostly positive approval rating from Republican identifiers, but it is misleading to think that the GOP — both its functionaries and its voters — can rally around Paul Ryan.

People should like Paul Ryan. He is obviously a nice guy, a family man, and a conviction politician. The convictions are his biggest problem. Paul Ryan’s bottom-line convictions include entitlement spending cuts, tax reforms that usually favor high-earners, and expanded low-skill immigration. 

I favor the first but recognize that entitlement reform is absolutely toxic when combined with high-earner tax cuts and expanded low-skill immigration (the last is extremely unpopular with the general public as a standalone policy, and yet is favored by the elites of both parties). 

Paul Ryan can’t unify the Republican party because the GOP is not divided by personality. That is the big mistake that is being made by supporters of Ryan, and Rubio, and Nikki Haley and whomever they think will get most Americans to back a donor-class agenda. They seem to think that the Republican party has popular ideas that are being poorly served by bad candidates.

The reverse is closer to the truth. The combination of policies that might be called “Ryanism” are unpopular with the country and have torn the GOP apart from the inside. These problems can’t be fixed by candidates who are younger, or have a different skin tone, or a different set of genitalia. There aren’t soothing clichés that will make people happy about an agenda that says you have to work longer before collecting Social Security while high-earners should get a big tax cut. 

That doesn’t mean that everything about Ryanism is bad. Paul Ryan’s work on reforming Medicare (and health-care financing in general) has been a model of working with smart people across the political spectrum (like Democratic economist Alice Rivlin) and of adjusting policy in response to constructive criticism.

It does mean that the policy mix needs to change. Unfortunately, Ryan seems to be very ideologically rigid outside his territory of health-care financing. Ryan, because of his ideological prior commitments, can’t recognize that his agenda has done just as much to divide the GOP as Donald Trump’s personality.    

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