House Speaker Paul Ryan’s slide in the public eye from policy wonk to partisan hack was a long time coming. But it finally reached its bottom during the past few weeks in two revealingly smug displays of insolence.
The first came in the form of Ryan’s prediction that a report by the Congressional Budget Office would show that fewer Americans would be insured under his plan to replace President Barack Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
“The one thing I’m certain will happen is CBO will say, ‘Well, gosh, not as many people will get coverage.’ You know why? Because this isn’t a government mandate,” Ryan said in a television interview. “So there’s no way we can compete with, on paper, a government mandate with coverage.”
Sure enough, the CBO reported that 24 million more Americans would go without coverage under Ryan’s plan than under Obamacare. And Ryan pronounced himself to be delighted, saying his legislation “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they can afford.” As for all those millions of people who would go without health coverage, well, you know, freedom.
Ryan’s second offense came last week in the form of a public conversation with Rich Lowry of National Review. In a classic “Not The Onion” moment, Ryan shared with Lowry his excitement at the prospect of slashing health care for the poor:
So Medicaid, sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate. We’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg.... I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. We’re on the cusp of doing something we’ve long believed in.
Ryan was so proud that he posted the video on his own website, Speaker.gov. It speaks volumes that he feels so comfortable in his assault on poor people that he can crack frat-boy jokes about it in front of an audience.
Not too many years ago, Ryan was regularly described as the intellectual leader of conservative Republicanism. He was a reader of books — well, OK, Ayn Rand novels. He discussed complex policy issues as though he knew what he was talking about. And he thoroughly bamboozled much of the punditocracy.
In late 2015, shortly after Ryan deigned to become House speaker in response to the importunings of his leaderless party, Eric Alterman of The Nation dug up some choice quotes. Jacob Weisberg of Slate had referred to a Ryan plan to reform (that is, gut) Medicare as “brave, radical, and smart.” David Brooks of The New York Times wrote that Ryan had “set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion.”
According to a 2012 profile of Ryan by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic, the liberalish uberwonk Ezra Klein of The Washington Post — who later founded Vox — was also not immune to Ryan’s charms. Klein praised Ryan’s radical budget-cutting plans as “a more honest entry into the debate” than typical conservative boilerplate. MacGillis also observed: “Once you earn a reputation as a Serious Man in Washington, it’s almost impossible to lose it.”
Gradually, Ryan has managed to lose it. Without question, Ryan’s slide began after he accepted Mitt Romney’s offer to be his running mate during the 2012 presidential campaign. Ryan was demolished during his debate with Joe Biden — a far more intelligent man than he is generally given credit for, but someone who, unlike Ryan, has never been described as an “intellectual.” It was an embarrassing moment for Ryan, and one from which he has never completely recovered, despite his rise in the Republican hierarchy.
Some observers have always been onto Ryan’s act. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which really does qualify him as an intellectual — has described Ryan as a “con man” and worse. Charles Pierce of Esquire regularly refers to Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny starver.”
Now Ryan is putting the finishing touches on his proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. As I write this, he is making changes to mollify conservatives who don’t think the measure goes far enough and moderates who think it goes too far. It will be quite a trick if he can pull it off. But as Robert David Sullivan of the Jesuit magazine America put it in a discussion on Facebook, “Paul Ryan is the Julia Child of making policy drafting catastrophes look barely presentable enough to swallow.”
Which is perhaps the ultimate irony of Paul Ryan. Even though he has been revealed as more an ideologue than an intellectual, even though his clenched-teeth alliance with President Trump has diminished him, he may be on the verge of his greatest triumph — a triumph that will line the pockets of the rich and harm the poor, the sick, and the elderly.
Ayn Rand would be so proud.