Paul Ryan will be remembered for a lot of things — his rise to fame as President Barack Obama’s most prominent critic in Congress, his 2012 run for vice president, his role leading the Republican establishment as it accepted Donald Trump as its nominee and then president.
But he deserves to be remembered as the person who, more than anyone else, committed the Republican Party to an extreme libertarian vision of government in response to Barack Obama’s election. In doing so, he ended up achieving little of the party’s priorities — and created an opening that helped propel Trump to the White House.
Ryan’s success was so complete that it’s hard to remember now that it didn’t have to be this way, and another Republican policy framework was possible in the Obama years. Instead, Ryanism dominated and the only prominent Republican to stridently reject it turned out to be Donald Trump.
In 2009, Obama was elected, along with massive congressional majorities by landslide margins — and this was amidst a financial crisis and calamitous war begun under his Republican predecessors. The party was in crisis, to put it mildly. They had just been handed a staggering defeat, one which was the direct result of the economic ruin at home and mass bloodshed abroad that grew out of policies they put in place.
One group of conservative writers and policy entrepreneurs proposed a sensible path forward. Using Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as their exemplar, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam had coined the term “Sam’s Club Republicanism” in a 2005 article in the Weekly Standard, and fleshed the idea out in a 2008 book.
The Republican Party, they argued, had grown “out of touch with its own base” on domestic policy. The party needed to “take the ‘big-government conservatism vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability.” That meant an economic agenda that took the costs of globalization to certain American workers seriously; that embraced cash payments and “subsidies to those who provide child care in the home” rather than adopting a laissez-faire attitude of making families go it alone; that de-prioritized Social Security reform and made “a serious effort to extend health insurance to all Americans.”
Douthat and Salam were hardly alone in this prescription. Former Bush administration staffer David Frum, in his own 2008 book Comeback, offered a similar prescription. “In times past, Republicans have offered a clear and simple answer to questions about America’s future economic growth: cut taxes and reduce regulation,” he wrote. “Those answers have become increasingly inadequate.” An even more prominent voice, former Bush chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, articulated a similar vision in 2007’s Heroic Conservatism. “From Republicans headed toward important elections, [a] crude anti-government message would be a political disaster,” Gerson wrote. “Campaigning on the evils of government while opponents talk of health care and education will seem, and be, small-minded, cold, and uninspired.”
This is how responsible parties respond to electoral drubbings: by trying to identify where their message went wrong, and adjust their policy agenda to better fit the public mood. That mechanism is a huge reason why democracies are at all responsive to popular discontent. And the responsiveness cannot be only on the part of one of the two major parties. Given the predictable back-and-forth of election wins, both parties are going to be in power at some point, and so if either of them breaks from popular sentiment in a dramatic manner, that suggests problems for the government’s ability to respond adequately to the public’s needs.
And from a comparative perspective, this is hardly an unreasonable path to imagine. Christian Democratic parties have traditionally anchored the center-right in Europe with a similar pro-business, socially conservative, but welfare state-accepting attitude. As the US grew more ideologically polarized between its parties — and thus, in a sense, more European — it would be natural for the Republicans to emulate their counterparts across the Atlantic.
Ryan’s laissez-faire agenda took over the party and brought disaster upon it
Paul Ryan stood for more or less the exact opposite prescription for the party. The problem with the Bush administration, by his diagnosis, was not a neglect of middle-class interests in favor of laissez-faire but an excessive indulgence of big government, and insufficient devotion to dismantling the welfare state. Ryan’s original 2008 Roadmap for America’s Future, his first budget plan, was a prescription for libertarian shock therapy applied to basically the entire federal government. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security would be largely or entirely privatized. The corporate income tax and all taxes on investment would be eliminated entirely.
The entire point of Ryan’s agenda was to dramatically reduce taxes on wealthy owners of capital and to pay for it by gutting America’s most popular programs to support senior citizens and the poor. It had no obvious popular appeal outside die-hard free marketers, who make up a vanishingly small portion of the voting public.
Amazingly, the Republican Party wound up embracing this vision comprehensively. As House Budget Committee ranking member and then chairman, Ryan wound up designing the economic policy vision that his whole caucus embraced. Rather than running from it in 2012 for fear that Democrats would rip him for supporting cuts to Medicare, Mitt Romney doubled down on Ryanism and picked him as a running mate.
Not much of this vision wound up becoming law, outside the 2017 tax cuts which, dramatic as they were, fell far short of Ryan’s most ambitious visions for the tax code. And as with any policy choice a party makes, it’s hard to determine what role Ryanism played in determining the party’s fortunes in the Obama years. Romney lost in 2012, yes, but most challengers to incumbent presidents lose. Congressional Republicans gained in 2010 and 2014, but the opposition party almost always gains in midterms.
That said, it’s very hard to make an argument that Ryanism helped the party and very easy to make an argument it hurt it instead. Obama’s campaign ran attack ads targeting the Ryan budget in 2012, and the budget helped him make his larger case that Romney was a plutocrat and vulture capitalist who would favor the rich at expense of the middle class . When it emerged that Romney had condemned the “47 percent” of Americans who don’t have positive federal income tax burdens, the Ryan budget put policy meat on the bones of Democrats’ ensuing attacks. As the campaign progressed, more and more Republican downballot candidates distanced themselves from the Ryan budget or rejected it entirely for fear that it would doom them electorally.
Also revealing is the fact that Republicans’ successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns were not premised upon Ryan’s budget. It was not seen as a compelling message to voters. Instead, in 2010 Republicans blanketed the airwaves with ads attacking Democrats for supporting Medicare cuts included in Obamacare. They were hardly championing the fact that their budget guru, Ryan, wanted even bigger cuts. In 2014, the final month or two of the campaign wasn’t about economic issues at all, but the rise of ISIS and the ebola outbreak.
Another revealing sign of the electoral impotence of Ryanism is the emergence of Donald Trump. Unique among his Republican primary challengers, Trump promised to protect Social Security and Medicare (even Medicaid too, at first), and savagely attacked Republicans who sought to cut those programs as part of a broader austerity effort. Trump did not, of course, keep that promise, and it appears that the dominant reason for Trump’s success in the primary (and the general) is that he successfully appealed to voters’ prejudices. But his heterodoxy on entitlements certainly helped at least somewhat, especially with older voters.
Republicans didn’t need to sabotage themselves the way Ryan proposed
Imagine, then, a world where the Republican Party hadn’t embraced Ryan as their guru, where a more Christian Democratic faction took over the party in 2009 and 2010. They proposed a health plan that, while more market-oriented than Obamacare, still brought universal coverage for severe illness. They proposed cutting payroll taxes, not corporate or income taxes, and supported a child allowance to encourage families to have more kids. They proposed family leave and subsidies for stay-at-home moms and working moms who need child care, to show they take work-life issues seriously.
That probably wouldn’t have been enough to overcome Obama’s incumbency advantage in 2012. But it almost certainly would have helped on the margin. And it would have paved the way for a somewhat responsible and experienced candidate with that message to win the 2016 primary by promising to protect entitlements, forestalling a challenge from a deranged game show host.
That would have been good on the merits. Political scientists have wondered in recent years how America’s democratic system has so totally failed to tame inequality, in spite of middle-class voters swamping the rich; they wouldn’t wonder as much had a different Republican Party emerged. And that scenario would have been good for the much narrower reason that it would have helped forestall the rise of Trump.
Instead, we got Ryanism, and, after it, Trumpism. That is Paul Ryan’s lasting legacy in politics, and it’s a grim one.