When I arrived in Washington more than eight years ago, one of the Right's most creative and determined policy minds was the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. As a young person who has long been concerned about our country's mounting debt and unpaid-for obligations, Ryan's voice in the wilderness was refreshing. He shifted elite perceptions of his famous solvency 'roadmap' by dint of enormous personal effort and sheer force of will. Consequently, his proposals went from being treated as a radical political death wish among the political class, to arriving as a serious and mainstream centerpiece of the GOP agenda. This was thanks to Ryan's leadership, for which he faced intense pushback from party elders, and outrageous demonization from the professional Left. He endured those slings and arrows -- often trying to bring open-minded Democrats on board -- in order to prove that fiscal sanity could be politically marketable. This work ultimately earned him a spot on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential ticket; they lost that election, but carried seniors, disproving a long-held political "truth" about the wages of getting serious about long-term debt.
Despite passing numerous budgets that reformed major entitlement spending programs in order to save them for future generations (while "grandfathering" in current and soon-to-be retirees), those policy goals never became reality. Ryan's dream was dealt a lasting blow in 2016, when both major parties nominated presidential candidates opposed to mathematically-necessary, meaningful reforms. His ambition to salvage and shore up huge, insolvency-bound programs like Medicare and Social Security did not come to pass, nor did the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, which fell one vote short in the Senate. Those momentous setbacks are real, but they do not mean Ryan's tenure as House Speaker was a failure. In his farewell address at the Library of Congress yesterday, he specified a roster of significant accomplishments:
To date, we have passed 1,175 bills, more than half of them with bipartisan support. And—it is my duty as speaker to say this—nearly 750 bills that the House has passed remain stuck in the United States Senate. But the rest made it into law...We began a historic rebuilding of our military and national defense. We enacted new and tough sanctions on some of our biggest foes. We ushered in a new career and technical education system. Record regulatory reform to help small businesses. A long-sought expansion of domestic energy production, to be followed by America’s new energy dominance. To stem the tide of opioid addiction, the most significant effort against a single drug crisis in congressional history. Criminal justice reform to give more people a chance at redemption. A landmark crackdown on human trafficking that is already yielding results and saving lives. A VA with real accountability, and finally, better care for veterans. And, after years of doubt, years of the cynics saying it could not be done, we achieved the first major overhaul of our tax code in 31 years. Think about it. We went from having the worst tax code in the industrialized world to one of the most competitive. This is something I worked on my entire adult life, and it is something that will help to improve people’s lives for a long time to come. It is one of those elusive generational reforms.
Those aren't small-ticket items, especially tax reform. Nevertheless, I was curious how Ryan would handle the tricky issue of unbridled long-term debt and soaring deficits as he tries to frame his legacy. Republicans were deeply and correctly critical of President Obama's reckless posture on the latter challenge, and his historic accumulation of red ink on the latter. But the current Republican president has been just as reckless, and deficits are exploding on Ryan's watch, this time --quite worryingly -- amidst an economic boom. As the Speaker exits the scene within this context, many of his critics on the Left are denigrating him as a "fraud," and the like. Such stinging epithets can be partially backed up by recent actuarial charts, but they ignore Ryan's many years of risk-incurring, difficult, good-faith efforts to change the trajectory of both his own party and the country's unsustainable finances (also, many of the same people who are gleefully scalding Ryan for falling short in these efforts...furiously and demagogically opposed those efforts every step of the way). Politics is said to be the art of the possible, and, depressingly, achieving major wins on this crucial front proved impossible. But Ryan hasn't lost sight of the nettlesome truth. Another passage from his Wednesday speech:
I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality and I consider this our greatest unfinished business. We all know what needs to be done. Strong economic growth, which we have now, and entitlement reform, to address the long-term drivers of our debt. Our revenue will soon return to its 50-year average. What continues to plague us is a mandatory spending system that is deeply out of balance and unsustainable. This was the case when I came here 25 years ago, and remains the case today. Not too long ago, few were willing to recognize the scope of this problem, let alone engage on solutions. Our government was not even inclined to examine our long-term fiscal picture. It just didn’t work that way. We had to go about changing the debate before we could even begin to try and change people’s minds.
I’m proud that every year I was Budget Committee chairman, we passed in the House a roadmap to balancing the budget and paying off our debt. In this Congress, we came within one vote of real health care entitlement reform. Federal health care spending remains the principle driver of entitlement spending. Our bill would have reformed two of our major health care programs to make them sustainable and meet the health care needs of our country. So we have come a long way, and we are closer than people realize. Ultimately, solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today. I regret that. But when the time comes to do this—and it will—the path ahead will be based on the framework we have laid out to solve this problem.
The lazy talking point about the tax cuts being a key culprit in all of this simply isn't borne out by facts. As Ryan notes, even after tax reform, federal revenue as a percentage of GDP remains at (or slightly above) the historical average of recent decades. The inflow of tax money is pretty stable; the outflow of tax dollars -- much of it earmarked for "mandatory" spending -- is out of control and not sustainable. Rectifying that daunting status quo represents a glaring and dispiriting piece of unfinished business for Ryan. Another key component of his parting message was a passionate denunciation of unthinking tribalism and the addictive and corrosive cult of outrage. With this admonition, Ryan is certainly speaking my language:
"Today, too often, genuine disagreement quickly gives way to intense distrust. We spend far more time trying to convict one another than we do developing our own convictions. Being against someone has more currency than being for anything. Each of us has found ourselves operating on the wrong side of this equation from time to time. All of this gets amplified by technology, with an incentive structure that preys on people’s fears, and algorithms that play on anger. Outrage is a brand. And, as with anything that gets marketed, it gets scaled up. It becomes more industrialized, more cold, and more unfeeling. That’s the thing: For all the noise, there is actually less passion, less energy. We default to lazy litmus tests and shopworn denunciations. It is just emotional pabulum fed from a trough of outrage. It is exhausting. It saps meaning from our politics. And it discourages good people from pursuing public service. The symptoms of it are in our face all the time. And we have to recognize that its roots run deep, into our society and our culture today. All of this pulls on the threads of our common humanity, in what could be our unraveling...This kind of politics starts from a place of outrage, and seeks to tear us down from there. So…how do we get back to aspiration and inclusion, where we start with humility, and seek to build on that? I don’t know the answer to that."
It's hard to read those words and not reflect a bit on the president's contributions to the very poisonous atmosphere Ryan laments. I've long held that Donald Trump is a symptom of our broken politics, not the cause. But too often, he wields his powerful megaphone in unhealthy ways, sometimes acting as a profoundly malignant force in our national discourse. This critique from Ryan will no doubt stir scorn among those who think he's been a supine enabler of Trump, and among those who think he's been disloyal and insufficiently obsequious toward the president. Large groups of people believe each of these mutually-exclusive critiques. I've watched Ryan attempt to walk the Trump tightrope over the last two-plus years, and he's certainly wobbled awkwardly on more than one occasion. It's been grimace-inducing from time to time. It will be interesting to see if his tone on Trump shifts after he's no longer carefully calibrating his rhetoric based on the political reality of presiding over delicate but unavoidable partnerships and coalitions.
In summary, while I'm not interested in blindly cheering every single one of Paul Ryan's decisions and compromises over the years, I admire him as a person, I appreciate his approach to politics, and I believe he's been in the game for the right reasons. I'm wholly uninterested in joining the cynical chorus of boos, jeers and backbiting that has characterized much of the punditry around Ryan's goodbye:
I know it's fashionable to kick dirt on @SpeakerRyan as he exits, but count me out. I believe he's an earnest person who's spent years pursuing solutions to complicated problems -- taking risks & incurring wrath along the way. Here's his farewell address:https://t.co/C2NDoAalZS— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 19, 2018
I'll leave you with the full video of Ryan's last major speech as Speaker: