House Speaker Paul Ryan announced on Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election to his Wisconsin First Congressional District seat . Facing a serious challenge from two Democrats—Randy Bryce and Cathy Myers —he may have worried that he couldn’t win re-election. But he certainly knows that the Democrats may win a majority of House seats in November, which would mean that he would lose the Speaker’s gavel. The 48-year old Ryan is one of a record number of Republican incumbents, many from once-safe GOP districts, who recently decided to retire rather than risk defeat. Ryan’s exit makes it likely that more Republican lawmakers will follow suit.
Ryan’s demise is quite remarkable, given his trajectory as the Republican Party’s up-and-coming star. First elected in 1998 at age 28, making him the chamber’s second-youngest member, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming the chair of the House Budget Committee. He went on to serve as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate in 2012 and later headed the House Ways and Means Committee.
In 2015, Ryan orchestrated a successful campaign for Speaker, claiming that he’d be a bridge-builder between the so-called “establishment” and “Tea Party” wings of the Republican Party—the only guy who could save the GOP from self-destruction. But during his tenure as Speaker, the party’s right wing grew bolder—with Ryan’s support.
Reluctantly tethered to President Trump, he never figured out how to join forces with the erratic president to craft a legislative agenda. His only signature accomplishment as Speaker was passage of the regressive tax bill. On other matters, such as repealing Obamacare or devising a conservative anti-poverty plan, Ryan’s leadership was a total failure. Only in the whacky world of the modern Republican Party could Ryan be seen as a voice of reason or even, according to the party’s Tea Party wing as “too far left,” as the New York Times reported in 2015 when he was campaigning for Speaker.
As part of that campaign, Ryan carefully cultivated the image of being a serious “thinker” and “policy wonk” and, for the most part, the mainstream media took the bait. When Romney introduced Ryan as his running mate in 2012, he described the Wisconsin Congressman as the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party.” In the conservative magazine Commentary, James Pethokoukis wrote that “It’s probably safe to assume that no elected official in America understands the ins and outs of the labyrinthine U.S. budget the way Paul Ryan does.”
Endorsing Ryan’s self-image as a broker between the GOP’s major factions, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat described him as a “moderate conservative.” But it is hard to imagine attaching the words “moderate” or “moderate conservative” to Ryan on any issue except his clothing preferences and his haircut.
Let’s start with Ryan’s outrageous hypocrisy. Ryan worships at the altar of novelist Ayn Rand, the philosopher of you’re-on-your-own selfishness, whose books have been required reading for his Congressional staffers. Like Rand, he consistently demonizes people who improve their lives with the help of government. Ryan seems to be unaware of how much his own family and his own financial success has been influenced by “big government.”
Despite Ryan’s persistent attacks on government spending, his family’s construction business has been anchored in building roads on government contracts. Despite his worship of private-sector entrepreneurs, he’s spent his entire career as a government employee. Despite being a crusader against anti-poverty programs, Ryan is a millionaire who made his money the old-fashioned way: by marrying a woman who inherited a fortune.
In his speech to the GOP convention in Tampa in 2012, where he accepted Romney’s invitation to join the GOP ticket as its vice presidential candidate, Ryan told a story about how, after his father’s death, his mother “got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison.” Ryan said:
“She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. It wasn’t just a new livelihood. It was a new life. And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my Mom is my role model.”
Ryan meant this as a celebration of his mother’s lift-herself-by-her-own-bootstraps spirit. He didn’t seem to realize that the bus was a public service, that the road was built and maintained by government, and that the University of Wisconsin in Madison is a public institution.
Yet Ryan released budget plans to slash funding for public education, roads, and public services that are the investments we need to lift people out of poverty and strengthen our economy.
Reporters seemed bamboozled by Ryan, who has claimed to be a both a budget expert and something of a social philosopher. But he turned out to be just a slick talker who appears to have flunked basic math in high school or college, because his budget numbers never add up.
During the 2012 campaign, reporters kept asking Ryan to explain his draconian budget, but he could never provide a coherent answer. His stump speech was little more than warmed-over babble about the evils of “big government,” the importance of being “self sufficient” and the dangers of people becoming dependent on government instead of lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps.
Ryan made his reputation demonizing poor people. His most popular metaphor was the anti-poverty programs had failed because instead of being a safety net they’d become a “hammock,” robbing people of their self-esteem and initiative.
Not surprisingly, his sought to slash programs that help low-income families and children. In 2013, from his perch on the House budget committee, he came out in favor of $20 billion in cuts that would have thrown an estimated two million children, elderly, and disabled Americans off food stamps. He pushed an amendment to eliminate food stamps for people who have $2,000 in savings, or a car worth more than $5,000. The CBO found that this would have thrown 1.8 million people off of the program. The Hill reported:
“Most of these would be low-income seniors and working families with children. These families typically live paycheck to paycheck. Denying them the ability to save for emergencies, such as fixing a car, or unexpected expenses, such as buying a uniform for a new job, only makes them more dependent on government resources, not less.”
The mainstream media routinely give Ryan credit for being a serious budget guru and social policy expert. In 2014 when he released a 205-page report on the history of anti-poverty programs, going back a half century to President Johnson’s Great Society programs, which concluded that they had failed. The report examined eight types of federal anti-poverty programs: food aid, social services, housing, cash aid, education and job training, energy, health care, and veterans affairs.
Ryan claimed that federal programs contributed to the nation’s high poverty rate and created a “poverty trap.” The report noted, “Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse.” The report was filled with lies and misinformation, all meant to justify Ryan’s proposed budget to slash anti-poverty programs like food stamps, family assistance, college aid, child care subsidies, and housing vouchers. Ryan, who also opposed extending unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless and raising the minimum wage, claimed that social science findings support his view that these programs have failed.
Ryan’s report generated lots of attention in the mainstream media, including headlines like “Paul Ryan Critiques War on Poverty in New Report” (TIME) and “Paul Ryan Sees $799 Billion War on Poverty Failing Poor” (Bloomberg News). But few reporters bothered to contact any social science experts who might have explained that Ryan’s report was full of holes. For all its footnotes, the report got it wrong, mostly by misquoting and misinterpreting studies that examine the impact of a wide variety of anti-poverty programs.
To cite just one example: Ryan’s report cited a study published by Columbia University’s Population Research Center measuring poverty trends since the War on Poverty began in the 1960s. Columbia Professor Jane Waldfogel and her colleagues looked at an alternative measure of the poverty rate known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which factors in government benefits like food stamps and programs like the earned-income tax credit. They found that the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012. But Ryan only cited data from 1969 onward, ignoring a full 36 percent of the decline.
“It’s technically correct, but it’s an odd way to cite the research,” Waldfogel told Fiscal Times. “In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There’s no justification given. It’s unfortunate because it really understates the progress we’ve made in reducing poverty.”
It wouldn’t have been difficult for reporters to find out that Ryan’s study was bogus. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report, “Ryan Report Distorts Safety Net’s Picture,” revealing that Ryan’s report was “replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light. It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions.”
Although mainstream media reporters were slow to expose Ryan’s sham report, some reporters like Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer, New York’s Jonathan Chait, the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik, Fiscal Times' Rob Garver, and The Wire’s Philip Bump, did due diligence on Ryan’s handiwork and called the congressman out. New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman also weighed in with “The Real Poverty Trap.” Rather than call the Wisconsin Congressman a liar, Krugman was gentler, pointing out that social science research “doesn’t actually support [his] claims.”
Since he began his political career as a protégé of conservative Congressman Jack Kemp, Ryan has been an extreme right-winger. On issues from taxes, abortion, gun control, and immigration, to campaign finance, workers’ rights, business regulation, Social Security, and health care, he’s been in lockstep with the conservative wing of the business establishment (like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he views any government regulation to protect consumers, workers and the environment as a “job killer”), the NRA, the Tea Party, and the religious right.
These groups now dominate a GOP that no longer has room for diverse viewpoints. For most of the 20th century, the GOP included business-oriented conservatives like Calvin Coolidge and Robert Taft and progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and Fiorello La Guardia who challenged the power of big business and promoted consumer and worker rights. Up through the 1970s, there were still “liberal Republicans,” in the mold of Senators Jacob Javits, Charles Percy, Prescott Bush, and Mark Hatfield, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; and even Michigan Governor George Romney, Mitt’s dad.
Today “liberal Republican” is an extinct species, Political scientists Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University have charted this shift in terms of voting trends in Congress. The influence of big business, well-organized right-wing funders (like the Koch Brothers and Mercers), think tanks and foundations, the rise of the Tea Party, the ascendancy of right-wing media like Fox News and radio talk shows like Rush Limbaugh, and the gerrymandering of congressional districts to promote “safe” GOP seats propelled the party even further to the right.
Paul Ryan’s career has reflected these shifts within the Republican Party. His resignation now shows that Republicans in the Trump era are fighting a losing battle for Americans’ hearts and minds.
*Portions of this article appeared in Huffington Post in 2016.