As one of President Trump’s many stooges, Paul Ryan has not especially distinguished himself. Chris Christie, for instance, has been the most visibly humiliated. Ted Cruz, you could argue, has sunk the furthest, from full-throated opponent to toothy eater of shit (on White House china!). Mitt Romney performed a similarly steep dive, but at least he did it with a stiff, hostage-video grin that lands him short of Cruz’s self-abnegation. By comparison, Ryan’s disgrace is almost itself a disappointment in its subtlety. Are a series of lock-jawed refusals to comment really the best Joseph A. Craig High School’s 1988 “Biggest Brown-Noser” can do?
Of course, to really disgrace yourself, you have to have had some grace to begin with, and perhaps that’s Ryan’s real problem. It’s not that he’s lost any dignity, it’s that he never had it.
The myth of Ryan’s "thoughtful conservative" reputation stems largely from his role on the undercard of the 2012 presidential campaign, during which, if you’ll recall, Mitt Romney's momentum was stalled by the release of video showing him dismissing nearly half of America's voters as "takers." Imagine that: Leaked footage of a candidate making embarrassing comments actually mattered. It’s especially strange that the election even partially turned on Romney’s disparagement of “47 percent” of Americans, given that his running mate, Ryan, gleefully extolled the virtues of a dissipated welfare state.
Some analysts at the time wondered if Ryan's desire to gut entitlement programs would hurt him, but many more journalists took Ryan’s rictus-faced endorsement of policies that would harm the poor as a sign of his seriousness. There's now a popular notion that the media needs to look backward to get misty-eyed over Republicans' past willingness to behave with at least a nodding acquaintance to social norms. But, in fact, reading Ryan profiles circa summer 2012 is a bracing corrective to that. It’s not Trump that makes journalists itchy to find and valorize “reasonable conservatives” — though the president certainly has set the bar for reason dangerously low — but rather an impulse to make all campaigns battles among equals, no matter how mismatched the teams may be in reality.
Coverage of the 2016 election took this impulse and made it a pathology, but distance makes it possible to see even more clearly how journalists wrenched the 2012 contest (particularly around Ryan) into the same narrative of false equivalency. The race for vice-president matched Paul Ryan, an obscure seven-term congressman from Wisconsin with negative charisma, against Uncle Joe Biden, legend of the Senate with a goddamn doctorate in folksy charm. To elevate Ryan as a worthy foe to Biden, Ryan’s bland obsession with starvation budgets became “wonkiness” and his aggressively mainstream demeanor and interests somehow rebranded as edgy-but-relatable. This breathless snippet from a Politico profile manages to do both:
”He's the guy you'd see walking around the House, his earbuds in, listening to Led Zeppelin one minute — and then the next he is grilling Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on a complex budget issue," Dayspring said.
Cool story, bro.
Politico also ventured to assert that Ryan had “found fans on the right, the left and the Libertarian fringes,” a.k.a. “the wonk crowd,” who would be “putting [their] money on the policy wonk with a head for numbers and details over the gaffe-prone — but often scrappy — Biden.”
The New Yorker was of course more sedate in its myth-building, but nonetheless credulous, allowing to go unchallenged Ryan’s description of his place among movement conservatives:
“People like me who are reform-minded ignore the people who say, ‘Just criticize and don’t do anything and let’s win by default.’ That’s ridiculous.” He said he was “moving ahead without them. They don’t want to produce alternatives? That’s not going to stop me from producing an alternative.”
Time magazine pronounced Ryan the “anti-Palin," and mused that Romney "might get more substance than he wants"!
All of these starry-eyed assessments are laughable, but the one that stings the most is the idea that the “reform-minded” Ryan is above “just criticizing,” and will stop at nothing to produce “alternatives.” There's a hastily assembled, secretly passed, and almost universally derided health care bill that would beg to differ.
If you look at Ryan’s résumé rather than his news clips, a necessarily drier and surprisingly tuneless narrative emerges: Ryan is kind of a fuck-up who has failed ever upward in government. We gasp at his capacity to eat Trump's shit and ask for more, but he's actually more like Trump than he is different. He is a beneficiary of media narrative over reporting, of the right's intellectual poverty, of the very low bar the GOP has set for its leadership. No wonder he refuses to hold Trump accountable; someone might start asking questions about him.
Paul Ryan has exactly one major legislative accomplishment to his name — the aforementioned policy turd, the American Health Care Act. He got credit for negotiating a budget compromise in 2015, but praising him for that is like applauding the captain when the plane lands. He won his congressional seat as the handpicked successor to the original occupant. He entered GOP House leadership at 36 because he was one of the few members of any note to survive the disastrous 2006 midterms. His first venture onto the national stage was to cheerlead George W. Bush’s push to privatize Social Security — an idea of sufficient toxicity that even Bush says he regrets doing it.
He is speaker of the House largely because almost no one else wanted the job.
In reflecting on Ryan’s charmed career as a reckless budget hawk and social safety net butcher, critics often indulge in a petty irony: This advocate for offloading entitlement programs to the states and privatizing a fleet of government functions paid for college using Social Security survivor’s benefits. I’d point to an even more astounding abuse of government largess: his congressional paycheck. He is, in his terms, a “taker,” not a maker. He survives on journalism handouts — a media welfare queen.
This post has been updated to correct the year of Ryan's "Biggest Brown-Noser" award.