Trump’s greatest service to America may be ending Paul Ryan’s career

Despite the mythology that surrounds him, Paul Ryan is bad at politics.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Paul Ryan, Scourge of the Elderly, Uniter of the Republican Clans, Wielder of the Magic Asterisk, Philosopher Prince, Student Who Failed Arithmetic, was supposed to be the GOP’s conquering hero. He is the architect of the Republican Budget, a general so beloved he persuaded 235 elected lawmakers to fall in line — marching together behind legislation that would phase out Medicare.

Though Ryan was, ostensibly, second fiddle to Mitt Romney, the GOP’s most influential minds spoke of the blue-eyed congressman as the One True King. According to Republican Überlobbyist Grover Norquist, the country needs only to “pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen” because that president’s one job would be signing “legislation that has already been prepared” — Paul Ryan’s legislation.

Ryan was the agenda setter. The mastermind. The man with the plan to unravel the New Deal and nuke the Great Society from orbit.

And then, the GOP’s rank-and-file got other ideas:

According to one recent poll, 58 percent of Republican primary voters view Ryan at least somewhat unfavorably. Though the Speaker has an almost mystic ability to seduce GOP elites and inside-the-beltway reporters with those dreamy blue eyes, he has lost the confidence of his party’s voters.

There are, of course, many factors that contributed to Ryan’s collapse. His gutless response to Trump’s racism and sexism is certainly one of them. Ryan, who continues to endorse Trump even as he refuses to be seen with his party’s standard bearer, is the Aaron Burr of the 2016 election. He waited to see which way the wind would blow. And he is now alone, at home neither with the Trump loyalists nor with the Never Trumpers.

Lest there be any doubt, there is also a far more deep-seated reason why Ryan is in free-fall. Ryan, despite the mythology that surrounds his charmed career, is bad at politics. He is bad at math. His ideas are bad. And people hate those ideas.

Paul Ryan misunderstood the fundamental grievances that glue his party together. He allowed existing fissures to become chasms. And, in doing so, he paved the way for Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP.

An uneasy balance

Movement conservatism is a three-legged stool, propped up by skepticism of economic regulation and welfare, an aggressive foreign policy, and cultural conservatism. For most of the last several decades, this package of ideas enabled the GOP to form a coalition of groups with seemingly disparate interests. Wealthy businessmen and women gravitate towards the party’s economic libertarianism and its passion for upper-income tax cuts. Hawks admire the belligerent interventionism that defined the second Bush administration.

Meanwhile, cultural conservatism appealed to a wide range of voters who, at least on the surface, had little to gain from the GOP’s economic agenda. Religious conservatives saw the Republican Party as a vehicle to preserve Christianity’s primacy and to transform their discomfort with homosexuality into policy. Other voters, with a more inchoate sense that America is changing and that they no longer feel quite at home in their own country, also took comfort in the GOP’s appeals to tradition. And yes, some of these voters are driven largely by racism.

For decades, this Republican coalition proved remarkably stable, but trade-offs were always necessary to hold it together. George W. Bush provided lavish tax cuts to the wealthy, but he also expanded Medicare to cover prescription drugs for seniors — a decision that did not sit well with the party’s libertarian faction. Bush pandered to religious conservatives with his proposed amendment banning same-sex marriages, but he also angered his party’s nativist faction by supporting an immigration bill similar to the reforms now supported by President Obama.

Bush understood something that Paul Ryan does not. There are lines that some members of the Republican coalition will not cross, even as other factions would gleefully barrel over them. Bush also understood that a single-minded focus on the interests of one faction will eventually turn off the others.

The deserving and the undeserving

“Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted by my wages,” conservative author J.D. Vance writes in his runaway bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. “At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.”

It’s a common complaint, familiar to anyone who remembers Ronald Reagan’s scare stories about “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs and living large at the taxpayers’ expense. As Herbert Spencer, a seminal figure in the development of modern-day economic libertarianism, wrote in 1897, charity must be tailored to restrict “that given to the unworthy.” For as long as there has been largesse, people have resented those who supposedly take advantage of such largesse.

Yet, while resentment of welfare recipients deemed unworthy runs deep in the white enclaves that house Donald Trump’s base, that does not mean that culturally conservative voters oppose all government spending. As Matt Yglesias explains, among white people “ethnocentrism correlates with stinginess” with respect to “programs targeted at the poor.” Thus, as a white voter slips deeper into racial resentments, they are more likely to oppose welfare programs that primarily benefit the least fortunate.

Just as significantly, however, “when it comes to programs targeted at the elderly, ethnocentrism correlates with generosity.”

Setting aside his failed effort to privatize Social Security, George W. Bush understood that the portion of the Republican base most likely to rally behind a candidate like Trump is also quite pleased with programs like Medicare. It explains why he signed Medicare Part D into law.

At some level, Mitt Romney’s campaign understood this political reality as well. Just watch this ad, where it accuses President Obama of cutting Medicare spending to pay for “a massive new government program that’s not for YOU.”

Indeed, while the last several decades of American politics have largely been a fight between movement conservatism and Rooseveltian liberalism, a different kind of politics — openly racist while simultaneously generous to voters in the in-group — was a major player in U.S. elections for many years. Southern racists ranging from “Pitckfork” Ben Tillman to Jimmy Byrnes to George Wallace promised a mixture of government largesse for white people and oppression for African-Americans. As civil rights leader Julian Bond once said of Wallace, “he confuses me because he’s a liberal on a great many questions, exception race.”

The spirit of George Wallace lives today in Donald Trump, whose explicit racism is paired with far less enthusiasm for tearing up the American safety net than many of Trump’s fellow Republicans. Paul Ryan, by contrast, hung his career on a proposal to repeal and replace Medicare with a voucher system that provides inferior benefits to seniors at a higher price. This proposal is wildly unpopular. Even self-identified Republicans prefer Medicare to Ryan’s vouchers by a 2 to 1 margin.

Indeed, Ryan’s full budget package, which also includes cuts to programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps that ethnocentric whites may be more inclined to support that his voucher program, is so unpopular that only a minority of Republican donors support it. Ryan’s base is limited to the wealthiest of these donors:

CREDIT: Center for American Progress
CREDIT: Center for American Progress

So let’s dispel with this fiction that Paul Ryan knows what he’s doing. Ryan rallied his party behind a wildly unpopular agenda. He did so at the very moment that the GOP’s white nationalist faction was on the rise. And his signature proposal is especially likely to pique that faction’s legitimate desire to protect its own economic safety net.

If the polls are correct, it now appears that Ryan has wound up with the smaller piece of the Republican pie. That’s not a happy position for him if he wants to remain speaker — or even if he wants to remain relevant as a thought leader within the GOP.

The GOP’s alliance between Wallace ethnocentrists and movement conservatives was never inevitable. And now it may be falling apart thanks to Ryan’s miscalculation.