House Speaker Paul Ryan is a good guy in a bad situation. What’s worse, it is Ryan’s admirers who have set him up to fail. Ryan is a creative politician whose talent is to learn from, and compromise with, elements of the other side on a few key issues. Conservatives and Republicans have put him in the position of being the party’s chief ideologue and political strategist. It is a role for which he is poorly suited.
It is obvious what Ryan’s friends see in him. He is handsome and articulate. He isn’t a powerful speaker, like a Reagan or an Obama, but he has a knack for framing his ideas in a favorable light. That is more than most Republicans can do.
And it isn’t just style. Ryan is a (relatively) small-government politician who takes an interest in details and shows a willingness to cross partisan and ideological divides. He worked with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden to reform Medicare. He worked with Democratic economist Alice Rivlin to propose a wide-ranging reform of health care financing.
More unusually for a conviction politician, Ryan has shown a willingness to change in response to constructive criticism. One of his earlier Medicare reforms would have provided a fixed sum allowing people to pick among competing health care plans. When this idea was attacked, on the grounds that the new Medicare subsidy might not be adequate to purchase sufficient health care benefits, Ryan changed his proposal so that Medicare would have a “defined benefit,” but the size of the government subsidy would be determined by competitive bidding (determining who could provide the benefits at the lowest price), rather than by government bureaucrats.
Ryan managed to get his party to adopt Medicare reform. The Republicans lost in 2012 with Ryan as their vice presidential candidate, but the GOP’s boldness in taking on a major entitlement does not seem to have been a major factor. The older you were, the more likely you were to vote Republican.
The wonky, compromising Ryan was a very useful fellow—but Republicans couldn’t leave well enough alone. First they made him the party’s vice presidential candidate. Ryan wasn’t exactly bad in the role, but he was and is most effective when talking in-depth about a small number of issues in which he takes a deep interest. Having him spend ninety seconds talking about every issue under the sun is a waste. He is only slightly better than most any other Republican when the issue is Afghanistan or climate change.
Then they made him Speaker of the House. The GOP in the House of Representatives was divided against itself. The former Speaker had been deposed by conservatives as insufficiently principled (though most of these same congressmen later supported Donald Trump), and the next fellow in line destroyed his chances with a gaffe. Ryan was seen as enough of a conviction politician for the party’s conservatives, but a sufficiently friendly face so as not to scare swing-voters.
The less significant problem with this is that it puts Paul Ryan in parliamentary hell. Instead of changing the debate (the role that originally brought him to prominence), he has been trying to craft legislation that can pass the Senate while avoiding the filibuster rule. He is stuck with trying to pass an irrational, potentially disastrous health care plan through the disingenuous manipulation of insane rules that nobody understands. This kind of stuff is designed for back-slapping, not-especially-principled hacks. It is a waste of Ryan’s talents.
The more significant problem is that Ryan, left to his own devices, has lousy political instincts and should not be the chief overall strategist for his party. Ryan can be terrific when working with a public-spirited foil from the center-left, but his default is degenerate Kempism.
Jack Kemp was a congressman from Buffalo who was pro–tax cut, pro–free trade, pro-growth, and pro-immigration. He injected much-needed optimism into American politics, and his proposals for across-the-board tax cuts would become standard Republican strategy for the next two generations. Ryan, who worked for Kemp, imbibed that worldview.
The problem is that both Kempism and the world have changed. The original Kempism of Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan was refracted though Kemp’s working-class congressional district and Reagan’s experience of talking politics on General Electric’s factory floors.
Today, and for a long time, Kempism has been refracted through the interests of the Republican Party’s donors and lobbyists. On the surface, everything is the same. There is still the same concern for tax-rate cuts in order to boost growth, but the direct beneficiaries are ever fewer and ever richer. Kemp and Reagan were defenders of the social legitimacy of citizen wage-earners who were immigrants or descended from immigrants. Now, Ryan supports guest-worker programs so that American employers don’t have to be stuck with hiring from America’s troubled population of lower-skill workers. The result is that Kemp’s old district went for Trump in the 2016 GOP primaries.
This degenerate Kempism is evident in the GOP plan designed to replace Obamacare. A more sensible plan would have prioritized the anxious wage-earning voter. This voter might have good, employer-provided insurance, but she is one layoff away from a much worse job with no benefits. She knows people in this situation.
A sensible plan would have been designed to assuage this voter’s anxieties while making health care more market-friendly. If she kept her job, little or nothing would change. If she got a new job that didn’t provide benefits, she would have access to affordable health care through a tax credit large enough to buy catastrophic insurance and a pre-filled health savings account. The plan would also deregulate health care, so that prices became more transparent and new providers could enter the market. As long as this voter kept working, she would have a modicum of security—and if she shopped a bit for her routine care, she might even save some money.
This isn’t what the GOP health care plan does. The tax credit is too small, and the prime direct beneficiaries are mostly affluent people who have their Obamacare taxes abolished. The more pro-worker, pro-market health care plan would have had political drawbacks. The larger tax credits and the HSA pre-fills would have increased spending and necessitated a higher level of taxation. The supply-side and price-transparency reforms would have upset some medical providers.
That’s why they are called priorities. Donald Trump took over the Republican Party because Jack Kemp’s heirs had failed to prioritize the concerns of working-class voters. Paul Ryan, a valuable man in other contexts, continues to exemplify those misplaced priorities as Speaker of the House.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.