There are plenty of frauds in public life, people who somehow manage to sell their imagined seriousness to gullible reporters and pundits, all the while being little more than empty suits. But in a profession with empty haberdashery everywhere one looks, Paul Ryan was the shiniest, emptiest suit of them all.
And today, for the first time since 1999, Congress is convening without Ryan as one of its members, while Nancy Pelosi will retake the gavel that he so badly mishandled for a bit more than three disastrous years as Speaker of the House. We should all breathe a big sigh of relief.
I wrote a column about Ryan's retirement announcement last April. Everyone by that point had figured out that Ryan's brand of ugliness was no match for Donald Trump's. The weaker man would have to go, and he did. But Ryan did stick around through the end of the most recent Congress, doing essentially nothing while watching his party be sent back into the minority in the House. He even gave himself a party to celebrate his supposed legacy when the bitter end arrived.
Is there more to say? Of course there is, and it mostly has to do with the odd reality that Ryan left office still being given the benefit of the doubt by mainstream journalists. Even after being completely exposed as a fraud, he might live to fight another day. How can that happen?
Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman is most assuredly not one of the people who was hoodwinked by Ryan's self-regarding image as a sincere wonk. Last week, Waldman laid claim to the most apt headline: "Good Riddance, Paul Ryan." Beyond Ryan's fraudulence, Waldman accurately summarized Ryan's agenda:
"Ryan had two great causes as a leader of Republicans: cutting taxes for the wealthy and undermining the American safety net. He succeeded on the first and largely failed — fortunately — on the second. And he oversaw a ballooning of the deficit yet somehow continued to convince people that he was an ardent deficit hawk."Ryan did fail to destroy the safety net, but he still did a lot of cutting of anti-poverty programs. Indeed, when he was shepherding his half-cocked efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act through the House in 2017, he reminded a conservative group that he (and they) had been "dreaming" about cutting Medicaid -- the essential program that provides minimal health care coverage to poor people and many senior citizens -- "since you and I were drinking out of kegs."
And it was not merely the poorest and most vulnerable Americans who were in Ryan's crosshairs. The middle class, whom Ryan could readily pretend to admire and represent, would have lost Medicare and Social Security if Ryan had had his way. This was a small man with a small-minded idea: Screw people who aren't rich! He never grew out of his infatuation with Ayn Rand's novels, and he thus had no use for "takers." Only the "makers" merited Ryan's respect or efforts.
Ryan has long been a joke on the left, of course. Paul Krugman turned mockery of Ryan into high art, returning again and again to ridicule the person whom Krugman accurately called "the Flim-Flam Man" from the very beginning of Ryan's elevation to being "the ideas guy" for Republicans. A Republican leader, it turns out, does not actually need to have ideas so long as the pundit class tells itself that he has ideas.
In 2013, Matthew O'Brien critiqued a budget proposal from Ryan by noting that Ryan "explicitly says how he wants to cut taxes, but says nothing about how he wants to pay for it. Instead, Ryan uses a magic asterisk. He merely waves his hand, and says he'll cut enough tax expenditures to pay for all of his tax cuts. He just can't tell us what any of these tax expenditures are. Not a single one."
Indeed, Ryan's "magic asterisk" virtually became his signature, allowing him to claim that his budget proposals added up and thus to claim to be a fiscal hawk even as he cut taxes for rich people and corporations. But the proposals never added up. In 2014, Jonathan Chait captured this fraudulence in The New Yorker: "Paul Ryan Declares War Against Math." Ryan has always been one of those people who deserves to be called "a dumb guy's version of a smart guy," joining fellow disgraced Republican former Speaker Newt Gingrich in the non-seriousness department.
In March of 2017, I wrote a column about Ryan's complete uselessness as Speaker, suggesting (a full year before he actually announced his intention to quit) that “[i]f he left office, Ryan could relieve himself of a lot of headaches and still get out before his carefully crafted image is completely destroyed.” I am tempted now to say: "Too late!!" Sadly, however, it is never that simple, because Ryan is still treated with an odd kind of respect.
Consider The Post's story about Ryan's self-aggrandizing departure, "Paul Ryan’s Small, Sad Goodbye," by Avi Selk (a story that, for some reason, was placed in the paper's Style section). Even though that article fairly reeks with contempt for Ryan's ineffectiveness -- opening line: "Paul D. Ryan ended his congressional career in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, beneath a stained-glass vaulted ceiling whose grandiosity emphasized the smallness of the ceremony below" -- Selk nonetheless accepted as fact the falsehoods that were at the center of Ryan's public image.
For example, Selk refers to Ryan's “bid to avert fiscal calamity,” even though it criticizes him for leaving "without getting the job done." The entire article takes the Ryan myth as true, only criticizing him for being ineffective in averting fiscal calamity, which Ryan endlessly claimed was coming even though he lacked facts and logic to support his claim. (But he did have handy-dandy graphs!)
Selk notes that Ryan's farewell party included a video in which "all his talk about debt burdens and runaway spending and the existential future of the country" were ignored. Selk then asks: "But how much, really, can one ideas man be expected to do? Ryan had some ideas. He had talked about them until he became one of the most powerful people in U.S. politics. Then he retired and went back to Wisconsin."
That sounds like a slam, and in a way it is. But what it leaves in place is the idea that Ryan had ideas, so many ideas that he was an ideas man, which has to mean something. As we know, however, all of Ryan's talk about debt crises was entirely situational -- reserved for times when Democrats are president or the government might actually spend some money on the non-rich, and then ignored when the time comes to give the wealthy a two trillion dollar tax cuts (of which, Selk writes, Ryan says he is "darn proud" and which Selk describes as Ryan's "crowning achievement").
Ryan knows how to sound like he has an idea, but he truly has no more ideas than anyone else in his party. Again, Waldman nailed it:
What great ideas! Selk, however, only focuses on Ryan's apparent failure to live up to his own truly big thoughts. This is nonsense. I was never able to use the column title, "The Puzzling Resilience of Ryan," but puzzling it was."The problem, though, is that his policy agenda was unceasingly vicious and cruel. Had he succeeded in full, the amount of human suffering he would have caused would have been positively monumental: millions more without health coverage, millions more without the ability to feed their families, millions more without retirement security, all with nothing to comfort them but some stern lectures about the value of personal responsibility and vigorous bootstrap-pulling."
And what worries me now is that the Selk approach -- and Selk is hardly the only one to give Ryan undue credit -- will allow Ryan to return in the future as the great sage who was pushed aside by Trump's bullying. Our memories must not be so short as to allow that to happen.