The Incredible Potential of Paul Ryan
Destined for greatness, so many said. Why didn’t he realize it?
Film director Orson Welles used to joke that he carried around “the burden” of his potential. He was the boy wonder who created the film classic Citizen Kane and then seemed to squander his talents, never equaling that feat again.
I couldn’t help thinking of that as Wisconsin congressman and House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he world retire in December, after 20 years in government. For his entire career, we have been hearing about his tremendous potential.
“That Hair. Those Eyes. That Plan.” This was the headline of a Milwaukee Magazine feature story on Ryan in 2005, suggesting he was a “Republican superstar-to-be.” His 2012 run as Republican vice-president seemed to confirm that, win or lose, Ryan was a glittering leader of his party.
He was undeniably attractive and articulate, as though delivered by central casting for the role of politician. And then there was the seeming power of his intellect, which generated fulsome fawning. Ryan was a “serious-minded policy expert,” according to USA Today, a “top wonk and budget tutor” (Associated Press), a policy “man of ideas” (Wall Street Journal editorial page editor and Green Bay native Paul Gigot), with “budget ideas that are thoughtful and serious,” said the New York Times.
This was a supposed expert on economics who for years, during most of the Obama administration, repeatedly warned that the super low interest rates of the Federal Reserve, adopted to combat the recession, would lead to dangerous levels of inflation. But the Fed, thankfully, didn’t listen to Ryan, America climbed out the recession and that dreadful inflation Ryan warned of still hasn’t come, eight years later.
This was a “man of ideas” who somehow couldn’t turn any of them into actual legislation. In his first 18 years as a congressman, he had authored just three pieces of legislation, as Politifact noted: “One named a post office in Wisconsin, a second changed taxes on arrows used by deer hunters, and the third, this year, established a $3 million presidential commission on ‘evidence-based policy making.’”
This was a Republican leader who spent seven years deriding Obamacare as a dreadful system that could easily be repealed and replaced, and then as House Speaker, with his party in control of the entire government, could not come up with a coherent plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.
This was a patriot who repeatedly criticized the toll on America from the debt level under President Obama, even after it declined as a percent of the GDP as the nation emerged from the recession Obama inherited. Yet once Republicans were in power, Ryan pushed through a tax plan that will add $1.9 trillion to the deficit. As a result, from 2021 to 2028, deficits will average 4.9 percent of the GDP — higher than at any time since World War II other than during the recession in 2008 and 2009, the Congressional Budget Office has projected.
This was the future-focused theoretician celebrated for his economic “road map” to address what he called the “looming entitlement crisis.” It was first released in 2008 and re-released in slightly revised versions several times after that. But Ryan’s solution to the debt he predicted would arise from federal entitlements was to add $6 trillion more in red ink over a decade or so, by slashing both the top individual tax rate and the corporate tax rate. Ryan’s allegedly wonkish paper actually specified no cuts in entitlements, but his massive debt would eventually require this.
As a story in Investors Business Daily noted at the time, Ryan’s proposal projected that all federal spending outside of Social Security and interest on the debt would shrink to 11.2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, “a level not seen since 1948 – before Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, NASA (and) the interstate highway system.” His approach was to wield a meat ax to the budget and let others clean up the mess that results.
Welles was a native of Kenosha, just east of Ryan’s Janesville and his tragic failure to make other masterworks has generated countless books of fascinated speculation, alternating blaming Hollywood and Welles ego and erratic ways. But over the years critics have been making a case for several other films he directed as great, if less than masterworks.
And what will historians make of Paul Ryan? He was a legislator who almost never legislated, and who never made any coherent policy changes in the three issues he seemed most consumed by: entitlements, the deficit and health care. And he is abandoning his career at a perilous time for his party, now more likely to lose the House of Representatives because its leader is quitting.
Citizen Kane‘s title character famously went to his death muttering the word “Rosebud,” a reference to his childhood sled, and how far he’d strayed from his youthful idealism. Ryan, too, seemed blind to the lessons of his own life. He was a beneficiary of survivor’s Social Security as a teenager after his father died, yet spent his career trying and failing to slash such entitlements. He grew up in a middle class family, but left that behind in championing the Trump tax plan that delivers most of its benefits to the rich. But by then the congressman had become a millionaire himself and a member of the 1 percent. Ryan himself will benefit far more from the Trump tax plan than the average folks in Janesville he had long since left behind.
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