High School Miserable: Speaker Ryan and the Bully

[Note to Readers: I have updated this post in light of the news from Friday, August 5, that Donald Trump has now endorsed Paul Ryan in the latter's primary election.]

by Neil H. Buchanan

American politics has often been compared to life in high school.  The pettiness, the striving for popularity, the nursing of grudges (somehow combined with short memories -- "so five minutes ago"), the betrayals and new alliances, the lack of substance.  But most of all, the insecurities.  Oh, the insecurities.

And then there is Paul Ryan, the career politician who has been the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States since late last year.  He leads his majority caucus in "the people's house."  If the President and Vice President were to die or become incapacitated, he would be elevated to the presidency.  But his insecure basis for being taken seriously has lately been fully exposed, and his reputation as that rarest of high school types -- the smart, cool kid -- is crumbling.

Ryan is the kid who never quite got out of that high school pose.  He rose to fame on an unsupportable claim to being a serious thinker, but in fact he had merely figured out how to play the popularity game as a sincere-looking con man.  And now, he is the weakling who is being bullied by the loud rich kid who is an even bigger con man than he is.

Recently, I wondered about the motivations of Ryan's counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but I noted that, "[a]t some point soon, I will write about the peculiar tragicomedy that has become House Speaker Paul Ryan's career."  In some ways, of course, they are very much alike -- two men who have risen to the top of their caucuses, now stuck in a daily hell of trying to deal with the latest outrageous comments by Donald Trump, and then having to explain why they are condemning those comments yet still supporting Trump's candidacy.

But McConnell is a relatively easy figure to understand, because he is so transparently a political operator.  Moreover, no one in the press or among his colleagues has ever accused McConnell of being an "ideas guy," or of being anything other than a tactician who is a pure partisan.  Ryan, having ridden a false story of ideological brilliance to the top of his party, now is forced to bear the humiliation of being revealed to be no better than a partisan hack, and a weak one at that.

For example, Ryan was forced into an awkward position at his party's (really Trump's) national convention last month.  As one article put it, Ryan "delivered an awkward speech that was jammed between saccharine testimonies from former soap actors, minor sports figures and a woman who runs Mr. Trump’s winery."  What a come-down for a former teacher's pet.

That is not to say that Ryan does not still have a coterie of people who will continue to flatter him.  Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who has been among the loudest Never-Trump voices, expressed his fealty to the leader of the other house when he bizarrely said: "If Tom Coburn and Paul Ryan have a baby, I’m their hideous offspring."  (If you have already forgotten former Senator Coburn, you are not alone.  Most people have.)

But this repository of unearned admiration is all being destroyed, as national attention has been trained on Ryan's indefensible not-quite-defenses of Trump.  The editorial page of The New York Times is no ideological ally of Ryan, but they have been respectful (too respectful, in fact) of him over the years.  Yet a lead editorial on July 19 included this stinging assessment:
"By supporting the Trump candidacy, Mr. Ryan has revealed himself to be a weak opportunist, far from the ideas man and budget wonk he made himself out to be when he secured the vice-presidential nomination four years ago. ...  Mr. Ryan seems to be trying to look just loyal enough to avoid blame for a Clinton victory while positioning himself to pick up the pieces of the party if Mr. Trump loses. But he cannot have this both ways. He is tying his future to Mr. Trump’s ugly campaign."
At the Trump convention, Ryan went back to his "change of tone" meme: "We should all kind of chill, calm down and change our tone going forward."  As if tone is the problem!  But Ryan has simultaneously been trying to save his tattered reputation with snarky comments.  When he was asked whether his manically anti-spending House colleagues would appropriate money to build Trump's wall, for example, Ryan reportedly smiled and said: "Mexico is going to pay for it, remember?"  Laughs all around.

All of which merely made it inevitable that Trump would continue to inflict wet willies and wedgies on the goody-two-shoes Ryan, loudly refusing to endorse Ryan's own reelection to his House seat and twisting the knife by using Ryan's words against him: "I'm not quite there yet."  By the end of the week, apparently after some interventions by the Republican National Committee chairman and others, Trump delivered a scripted endorsement of Ryan notable for its lack of enthusiasm.

But the damage was done to Ryan, because Trump obviously understood that Ryan's pretense earlier in the summer to withhold his endorsement until Trump promised to be a good Republican was laughable.  It only made Ryan look more ridiculous when he soon capitulated, having then to explain how his doubts about Trump had been allayed even as Trump's behavior had become more and more unhinged (and un-conservative).

The conservative intelligentsia has begun to point to Ryan's lack of seriousness as well.  One of the Times's conservative columnists, Ross Douthat, penned a devastating column in the immediate aftermath of Trump's latest snub:
"But more than most politicians Ryan has always laid claim to a mix of moral and substantive authority; more than most he has sold himself to the right’s intelligentsia and the centrist media as one of Washington’s men of principle. And both that authority and that brand are being laid waste in this campaign."
Part of Ryan's problem is that he built his career on an easily exposed fabrication, which is that he is a serious economic policy wonk.  And many people have bought into the fantasy, with even a recent column by a conservative writer denouncing Trump including laughable statements like this: "There are still some thoughtful Republican leaders exemplified by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who devised an impressive new budget plan for his party."

Unfortunately for Ryan, there are real economists out there who have exposed his bunk, and who immediately saw through him from the very beginning.  Even more unfortunately for Ryan, the most widely read economist in the world, Paul Krugman, is one of the people who called him out -- insistently and repeatedly -- from the very beginning.  It is like watching the kid who thinks he can fake his way through everything with smiles and feigned sincerity suddenly go blank, left merely to repeat himself and hope that people will ignore what is happening.

Although Krugman's policy and political views are the opposite of Ryan's, this is not about ideology at all.  Krugman is actually most effective simply in pointing out that Ryan has been getting a free pass from the both-sides-have-a-point chorus in the punditocracy.  Rather than a disagreement of left versus right, Ryan's ballyhooed budget plans were based on pure fantasy, achieving fiscal balance only by including huge, unspecified spending cuts that Ryan has steadfastly refused to explain.

It is, in other words, possible to be a fiscal conservative -- and to completely disagree on policy matters with Krugman and other liberal economists -- yet still see that Ryan has been engaged in a con game.  Ryan's supposed policy chops have been consistently revealed as nothing more than an ability to use four-color graphs to distract people from the fact that his policy ideas leave out all of the difficult political choices.

Meanwhile, Ryan's attempts to prove that Republicans are concerned about the poor have been based on nothing more than reviving what is known as "dependency theory," in which Ryan tries to say that our tattered safety net is a "hammock" that lulls poor people into a sense of comfort and idleness.  "Trust us, we're planning to take what little you have away from you for your own good," Ryan tells America's disadvantaged children and adults.  And his attempt to support dependency theory by referring to the academic literature earned rebukes from the academics whose work he mischaracterized.

The tragicomedy of all this is that Ryan's ambitions blinded him to the dangers of the greater scrutiny that comes with greater power.  Chairing important committees in Congress gave him just enough of a platform to build up his unearned reputation for gravitas, without being quite important enough for anyone to think about too frequently.  Being the vice presidential candidate on a losing ticket did not fully expose his emptiness when it came to actual policy analysis.

Ultimately, what brought down the high-school overachiever was a failed attempt to please everyone.  He wanted to say to the teachers and the rest of the kids in school, "Yeah, Big Don really is a bully, and I will stand up to him," and then he politely asked the brute to stop making him look bad.  To Ryan's evident surprise, the bully looked back at him and said, "Make me!"

Ryan then succeeded in getting the assistant principal and some of Big Don's buddies, who appreciate the usefulness of Ryan's unctuous style, to get the bully to relent, at least for now.  And Ryan went back to trying to tell everyone that this year's Homecoming Dance is going to be better than ever.