Speaker of the House Paul Ryan knows how he wants his memoirs to be written. He wants America to remember him as a high-minded policy wonk who sought to heal our broken politics, lift up the downtrodden and save the nation from debt. We know this, because these themes were on full display during Ryan’s farewell address this week at the Library of Congress.
But throughout his career, neither Ryan’s words nor his results have lined up with this image — and the Trump era in particular has stripped them bare. It is thus fitting that Ryan’s final act in Congress is capitulating to President Donald Trump and joining in the president’s destructive strategy to shut down much of the government in a misbegotten effort to obtain taxpayer funds for a southern border wall.
Ryan portrayed himself as a crusader fighting for truth, but leaves Washington a failure — a cynical politician whose primary policy achievement was a tax cut for the wealthy. Trump may be the face of the Republican culture of corruption, but Paul Ryan was its true pioneer.
In his speech, Ryan bemoaned the fact that he could not make good on his promise to fix America’s debt problem. On his signature issue, Ryan’s story is that he tried valiantly to tackle the issue but came up short because others lacked his courage. “Solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today,” he lamented.
But Ryan’s record shows that reducing deficits and debt was never actually his priority. As a junior House member, Ryan voted for all of President George W. Bush’s major deficit-increasing policies, including tax cuts, wars, and spending increases.
In the Obama years, despite this track record, Ryan positioned himself as a courageous fiscal steward, using the specter of a debt crisis to block all efforts by President Barack Obama to boost the economy. Pundits helped Ryan burnish this reputation despite the massive tax cuts he proposed, the phony budgets he issued and the potential budget compromises that he scuttled.
To people paying close attention, Ryan’s act was transparent: His priority was cutting taxes, not reducing deficits.
Sure enough, right after Republicans assumed power in 2017, Ryan led the charge for more tax cuts that the Congressional Budget Office estimated will increase deficits by nearly $2 trillion. The tax bill was arguably one of the biggest special-interest giveaways in modern history. Ryan called it his biggest achievement.
Beyond tax cuts, Ryan’s speakership produced a steady drumbeat of bills designed to boost profits for Republican donors at the expense of the American people, with varying success. There was the bill that would have allowed polluters to put more toxins in our children’s air and the one that did allow polluters to put more toxins in our water; the law that told Wall Street it could go back to era of deregulation that precipitated the Great Recession; the law that almost let retirement advisors cheat retirees to benefit themselves; the law that offered corporations the opportunity to cheat factory workers out of overtime pay.
But perhaps Ryan’s most enduring legacy is his tacit acceptance of Trump’s corruption .
In his farewell address, Ryan extolled “civil, passionate discourse,” “inclusion” and “moral leadership.” Yet as Trump rose to power by assaulting these values, Ryan made a devil’s bargain to amass power. For Ryan, Trump’s promise to help him cut taxes and repeal Obamacare was worth the collateral damage.
For Ryan, Trump’s promise to help him cut taxes and repeal Obamacare was worth the collateral damage.
Every now and then, Ryan would rebuke Trump for particularly ugly outbursts — but importantly he never publicly broke with him. Ryan wanted it known that he disapproved of Trump’s racism and comments about women — but that it was not a deal breaker. Ryan said that Trump’s denigration of a judge with Mexican ancestry the “textbook definition” of racism — but in the next breath said he still supported him over Hillary Clinton. “[W]e have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than we do with her,” he said. After a videotape was released showing Trump bragging about assaulting women, Ryan made it known that he would no longer publicly defend Trump, but never called on Trump to step aside and indeed continued to support him.
More often, as Trump attacked vulnerable people or American institutions, Ryan would simply bury his head in the sand. His ostrich routine was so common it became a running joke — even Ryan acknowledged his reputation in 2017.
As evidence mounted of impropriety and potential criminal activity, Ryan’s House did no meaningful oversight. Ryan also backed Rep. Devin Nunes as he turned the vital House Intelligence Committee into a partisan weapon to slander Obama officials and obstruct the Trump-Russia investigation.
As Ryan saw his dream of tax cuts coming to fruition over the course of 2017, this coldblooded alliance became a warm embrace. After Trump defended the white nationalists who sparked violence in Charlottesville, Va., Ryan averred that Trump’s “heart is in the right place” on race and saluted him for “giving us the kind of leadership we need.”
But Ryan’s moral compromises weren’t just about Trump. While racism and paranoia festered in the GOP caucus, Ryan floated above the fray, portraying himself as “just a policy guy.” After Iowa Rep. Steve King’s long history of bigotry boiled over this fall, Ryan ignored calls to discipline or banish him. This year, in an ultimately failed attempt to keep a majority, Ryan’s own Super PAC — funded by the donors he relentlessly funneled tax dollars to — ran disturbingly racist ads against Democratic candidates.
The truth is through his career, Ryan had stoked a subtler form of division — denigrating the people he has recently claimed to champion. He divided America into classes of “makers” and takers.” He blamed poverty on a “culture problem” in the inner cities, with “men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” He blamed the social safety net for lulling Americans into lives of “dependency and complacency.” In his farewell address, Ryan extolled the American idea that “the condition of your birth isn’t your destiny.” But the entire thrust of his career was to advance policies that would deepen poverty and reinforce inequality of opportunity, including deep cuts to health care and nutrition for poor families. Ryan’s tax overhaul omitted a key policy he had claimed to support, to supplement the earnings of low-wage workers without children in the home.
Addressing his peers and admirers in the Library of Congress, Ryan said that the job of speaker was “a temporary trust, to be a steward of the greatest legislative body in the world." Ryan failed to uphold that trust and history will remember him for it.