Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Incredible Potential of Paul Ryan

Destined for greatness, so many said. Why didn’t he realize it?

By - Apr 13th, 2018 10:07 am
Paul Ryan. Photo from the Office of the Speaker of the House.

Paul Ryan. Photo from the Office of the Speaker of the House.

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.

Maybe they were all just mesmerized by those eyes, that hair, that articulate, nice-guy sincerity. Because when it came to the substance of his ideas, there was no there there.

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.

That’s the general approach the federal tax plan Trump and Ryan passed, though it is not nearly as outlandish and unfunded as Ryan’s road map. It slashes the corporate tax rate and more modestly lowers the top individual tax rate, creating a huge deficit that will leave the way open for Republicans to argue that federal entitlements must be slashed. But no past effort by the GOP to do this has been successful, because these entitlements are a lifeline for lower-class and middle-class Americans.

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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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

20 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Incredible Potential of Paul Ryan”

  1. Matt says:

    Paul Ryan was so humble he didn’t even know he was destined for greatness? His potential was his burden?

    Did you guys suddenly hire Craig Gilbert?

    Paul Ryan was just a guy who got in good with the rich guys, bought into a selfish ideology (Ayn Rand? Seriously?) Worked all the time on his abs and cutting taxes for the rich friends he made along the way, hung out with Tom Delay. His potential was as a tool. He Peter principled up to Speaker of the House and suddenly he had bigger obligations than his ideological purity would support. SO he sucked up to Trump and Nunes, they were not appreciative of his perfect hair and used him up.

    That was his potential. He reached it. And now he will cash in. His second biggest victory is fooling the suckers into thinking his beer bong philosophy constituted deep thinking. The biggest victory being, of course, getting to hang out with Reince Priebus.

  2. Gary Rebholz says:

    I’d like to mention 2 good points about Paul Ryan, and the potential of a 3rd: he didn’t personally complete the conservative mandate to destroy the Roosevelt legacy; he clearly wasn’t held to that task through blackmail; hopefully there will be a tell-all book in the future. (Comey’s publisher might want to get in on that ’cause Wisconsin Historical Society Press pro’ly won’t.)

  3. Terry says:

    Career Politician Paul Ryan made a Faustian bargain, not only recently with the crypto-fascist, authoritarian Trump, but he also made one long, long ago with his dreaded “Big Government” itself. For what sort of young “objectivist” immediately heads to Washington to become a career politician?
    Paul Ryan, (like Career Politician Scott Walker) has never worked a single day in his adult life in the “free market” or private sector he purports to adore. So after 30 years of mooching off the Big Government aka we the taxpayers, and becoming a millionaire several times over, I think it’s safe to say…

    Paul Ryan, you sir are no John Galt.

    No you are nothing more than just another zombie eyed republican granny starver, mooching off the Big Government dole for decades while chastising and impuning working folks and actual life long entrepreneurs and business people like myself and million of others, having the nerve to call US, “lefties” and “socialists” and “Big Government liberals!”
    People like Career Politician Paul Ryan and Career Politician Scott Walker have no credibility and no conviction. “Trump Toady”, “National Debt Ballooner” and “Corporate Puppet” will look very nice on his resume however. Time to get a real job for once fellas!

  4. Jake currently of the MKE says:

    I’m guessing he lawyering up to deal with the fact his PAC laundered Russian money for the 2016 election.

  5. Robert R says:

    Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and F for Fake, masterpieces all, call foul on using Orson Welles as a comparison point to Paul Ryan.

  6. Bruce Block says:

    Add “Magnificent Ambersons” to Welles’ list of very fine/great films. “Touch of Evil” is an absolute classic, with a peerless cast.

  7. Swblackwood says:

    Ryan is just a guy who, in college, talked about how they were going to get rid of Medicaid. He is a lifelong disciple of Ayn Rand and only half[-heatedly “denounced” he when her atheism became inconvenient to his Veep ambitions. In short, he is just an asshole.

  8. Terry says:

    Good riddance Paul “Toady for Trump” Ryan, I mean Neville Chamberlain! What a legacy you have left. Starving grannies, trillions more in debt, enabling and appeasing Trump’s authoritarianism and fascism and mooching a few million dollars off of the taxpayers! Great work! You should be so proud Neville. I hear Ryan’s only regret is that he didn’t get to take more health care away from people. At least he didn’t stick around long enough to make it to Vidkun Quisling status. The shame, boat loads of shame…The great appeaser has quit but we still must…

    Dump Walker in 2018

  9. Willie Ray says:

    Yes Speaker Rayan must hurry. This is his last chance to spend some quality time with his fledglings in hope that he can yet guide them with inspirational thoughts like, “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.” – “I”n (Ayn) Rand

  10. George Wagner says:

    You nailed it, Bruce Murphy. I remember when he first ran for Congress in ’98. There he was, a man of the people walking through the cemetery where his grandfather lay. In the background of the commercial was the lilt of Irish music.”This boy is goin’ somewhere,” I thought. Very slick, and he still has the centrist media fooled that he actually knows something about economics.

  11. Timothy J Haering says:

    Nicolas COpernicus pitched the heliocentric solar system in 1543. But it took 60 years and Johannes Kepler, using Tycho Brahe’s telescopes, to yank Helios into the center of OUR orbit. Ryan’s unwillingness to fight Fight FIGHT!!! for his effen ideas is what doomed them like reports from governor’s blue ribbon commissions. [A grateful bow toward Maryland where Dr. Don Kettl deans at my alma mater.] If Ryan coulda translated an ounce of intellect into a few foot-pounds of political punch, he coulda had Trumplestiltskin jigging down the Pathway to Prosperity. Ryan coulda worked wonders with Larry Kudlow. But nobody has the balls to tell the Right Bauer to sit down and shut up! We’re afraid to go with you, Bluto, we might get in trouble. So, Ryan came in like a lion and went out like a salt marsh harvest mouse … and nobody knows what it means! Me, I am praying for the second coming – Paul “Thunderfoot” Ryan. A Ryan who’s hungry to win and who isn’t too much of a gentleman to make someone lose!

    Nice piece, Bruce. You did a good job for your side. John Nichols wishes he wrote that. Happy Friday!

  12. Thomas says:

    George Wagner’s post # 10 casts light on Ryan’s appeal to the most gullible among us. It also reminded me of Paul Krugman calling Ryan “a flimflam man.

    Let us not write PR’s political obituary too soon. In American politics, where less is more, Ryan could well make another run at the presidency, at a senate seat, for governor of WI. … I doubt that he will follow in the footsteps of Orson Welles. I do not see him getting fat and making commercials for Paul Masson wine.

  13. John says:

    I think it really was telling when Ryan – so desperate took advantage of a soup kitchen by barging in there and getting a photo op cleaning pots already cleaned. Sad thing – his wife went along with the charade. Quite symbolic of his all squeaky voice and blue eyes facade. I suspect he has done nothing meaningful for his district,

  14. David Ciepluch says:

    He was a media ordained economic guru and policy wonk. It was always total BS. Ryan is a flim-flam man and liar that sold political propaganda built upon lies for a remedy. He has done nothing in his more than 2-decades in public office that has demonstrated any knowledge or implemented policy that has been a benefit to the majority. He has served his own interests, fake image, and corporate masters well, and will likely get another million dollar job as a lobby pitch man further selling out most of the working class of citizens.

    We live in a very corrupt country that can place people like Ryan and Trump in positions that can make such a positive difference in the lives of people and they do everything in their power to make things worse. And what does it say about the people that vote and elect these buffoons and fools that loot and steal from all of us and undermine decency, fairness, justice, and rights of all?

  15. Eric J. says:

    -People always tell me they like Paul Ryan . And when I ask why or what has he accomplished , they can’t answer.
    -He must appear to those to be a guy who would/could accomplish something in government . But after all this time – Next to Nothing .
    -To quote President David Dennison : ” That would be one of the greatest scams of all time ” .
    -Paul you scammed the southeast district pretty well. Almost as good as Sensenbrenner .

  16. Virginia says:

    Will Ryan actually return to distressed Janesville to spend time with his family or instead cash in as another high-paid Washington lobbyist or think-tanker?

    Here’s another take on Ryan’s over-hyped tenure.

  17. max says:

    Ryan is to legislation what Tony Mandarich was to the Packers, number 1 draft choice in 1989, taken in the 2 spot of the first round, passing over Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Dion Sanders who were all on the board. Mandarich was never much on the OL, pitiful at times, much like Ryan, who was never a serious legislator, but a blind ideologue who worships Ayn Rand. Now he’s even sunk lower, firing a priest and making up stories about the reason. Good riddance to Ryan.

  18. A Bus Driver says:

    Paul Ryan politics very own Eddie Haskell

  19. John Kishline says:

    Thank you, Bruce, for reminding us again that zero times anything is still zero.

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