Things aren’t exactly going well for House Speaker Paul Ryan. The Republican legislative agenda, which is largely his legislative agenda, seems to be going nowhere.
Tax cuts, redesigning Medicaid, redesigning Medicare, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, large cuts to non-defense spending? None seem likely despite unified Republican control of government. The party has moved decisively against the kind of free-market, free-trade, immigrant-friendly policies that Ryan and his hero Jack Kemp once supported. And his personal polling numbers are terrible, the Republican majority in the House is seriously threatened in the 2018 midterms.
How did he get here? A series of mistakes starting back in 2011 has left Ryan ill-prepared for governing in 2017.
1. Vowing to Replace Obamacare
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Immediately after taking the House majority, Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That wasn’t the mistake. There’s nothing wrong with the purely symbolic vote with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House – that’s actually an important function of the (presidential) out-party. The mistake followed, after Ryan, then chairman of the House Budget Committee, and four other House chairs published an op-ed pledging to develop a “replace” bill.
Of course, nothing happened. No hearings, no legislation, no plan – just more and more messaging bills. That was not only a large lost opportunity, but it also raised false expectations among Republican voters of what Republicans might do if they took over Congress.
2. Squandering Leverage
Four years passed before Ryan rose to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, and then got a major opportunity to consolidate control. It became clear soon after Speaker John Boehner’s resignation on September 25, 2015, that Ryan was probably the only replacement the entire conference could live with. This gave Ryan tremendous leverage. It gave him leverage over every House Republican faction, and particularly the Freedom Caucus, a group that made Boehner’s speakership miserable through large and small acts of intraparty rebellion. Granted, any commitments they made to him at that point might have been abandoned later. But still, Ryan would never again have that kind of leverage, and he didn’t seem to get anything out of it.
3. Not Prioritizing Policy
Ryan and the Republicans then pushed another round of messaging bills to make Democrats look bad, which is to be expected given the new Republican majority in the Senate in 2015 and the upcoming presidential election. But the grave mistake of 2011 was repeated, this time with Ryan in charge. Republicans should have commenced the serious work of policy-building so that they’d have the ability to hit the ground running if they won unified control of government in the 2016 elections. They did not. Not only was hardly any prep work done on health care, Republican’s top agenda item, but they failed to find smaller, relatively easy ways to put points on the board for their constituents – as the Democrats did with the Lilly Ledbetter law in 2009 or the Family and Medical Leave law in 1993.
Granted, that’s not all Ryan’s fault, but he certainly was in a position to do something about it and failed to. Even his famous budget remained a very light messaging document filled with magic asterisks, with all the hard choices put off to the future. Again: Messaging bills are a legitimate part of the job, but so is serious policy development. Ryan should have been making sure someone was working on the latter once he ascended to the speakership.
4. Cutting Obamacare Losses
Specifically, Ryan should have realized that after the relatively successful (if initially botched) implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2013 that talk of “repeal” was simply policy nonsense. There was no going back to the status quo ante because that world no longer existed. Meanwhile, there were going to be serious political costs involved in taking away benefits that voters were now receiving.
That didn’t make a new major round of reform impossible, but it did make it an enormous undertaking, and one that would begin with the new status quo, not wish it away. Some conservatives acknowledged that. Ryan and House Republicans never did, and seem to prefer living in a dream world where it’s always 2010, when Obamacare could still fail and they couldn’t do anything about it.
5. Shrinking From Trump Fight
It’s not unusual for congressional leaders to stay neutral in presidential nomination battles – after all, they'll be stuck working with the nominee if he or she wins the White House. But Donald Trump was no usual potential nominee. And the 2015 and 2016 Republican Party had more than the usual trouble in settling on a candidate. Ryan could have played a key role, either in late 2015, or early in the primaries and caucuses, in rallying the party around an acceptable candidate.
There’s no way of knowing whether a timely endorsement by Ryan and other prominent Republicans would have made a difference, but Trump only won the nomination by a narrow amount, so it’s certainly possible. And even after the primaries, Trump’s grip on the nomination was weak enough that a serious effort to defeat him might have been successful. Ryan remained neutral, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus – a Ryan ally – tilted toward protecting Trump, and that was that. It’s clear that taking on Trump would have been costly for Ryan, but it’s also very likely that nominating and electing him were even more costly.
6. Raising Expectations for 2017
Once Trump won, Ryan should have taken stock of where they were (including the fact of the filibuster in the Senate), put together a reasonable calendar, and worked on creating expectations to match. Instead, he did the opposite.
I could add one more: That Ryan, along with every other mainstream conservative politician in the party, has done nothing to knock down the influence of talk show hosts and other cranks within the Republican Party. Instead, he has strengthened them by going on their shows and treating them as the kingmakers they have now become. Of course, without them, John Boehner might well still be speaker, and Eric Cantor might still be next in line. It’s quite possible that Ryan would have, as he says, honestly preferred to remain the chairman of Ways and Means rather than ascend the leadership ladder. But having done so gives him responsibilities he simply has not lived up to.
I’ve accused Ryan of being too willing to shift blame from himself to others, instead of focusing (as a party leader should) on protecting his conference from harm. That may even account for Wednesday’s temporary budget deal.
But in the longer view, these six failures have been what has harmed him, and House Republicans, the most this year.