The minute Representative Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race for House Speaker, a flurry of reports began circulating about renewed efforts to draft Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and House Ways and Means Committee chair.
Ryan has stoked the excitement with a series of remarks which, as CNN put it, mean he's “refused to rule out a run.” Republicans who have been lobbying him include departing speaker John Boehner and colleagues including Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole, who has taken to the talk shows to say he’s sure Ryan will "do the right thing” and run.
“He’s the only one that can do the job,” House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, Republican of California, told reporters.
In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait seconded that, writing that the GOP needs Ryan: “No other figure within the party combines Ryan’s philosophical radicalism and tactical pragmatism,” and calling him “the president of Republican America.”
Republicans are understandably desperate, as they face Boehner’s sudden departure, the threat of an imminent government shutdown, and the unexpected collapse of McCarthy’s bid to be the next speaker. There is no clear path to the speakership for any of the declared would-be leaders of the fractious Republican caucus. Enter Paul Ryan, rightwing messiah.
Conservative commentators, including longtime Washington insider and former Bush administration White House staffer David Frum have predicted that the current chaos could even lead to the splitting off of a third rightwing party.
But the idea that Paul Ryan is the answer to the GOP’s troubles is not a healthy sign. A closer look at Ryan shows that he embodies many of the problems plaguing the GOP, causing them to alienate voters and lose elections.
The Progressive has covered Paul Ryan since he emerged from the ashes of the collapse of manufacturing, the black middle class, and strong unions in his once-progressive Janesville, Wisconsin district. We followed his rise as a chief proponent of Social Security privatization and Medicare vouchers and his loss, with Mitt Romney, in the 2012 presidential election, in which Ryan failed to carry his home district.
Here are a few reasons to be cautious about Paul Ryan:
1. Before he put on his “budget genius” costume, Ryan came to power by representing the “partial-birth abortion” crowd, running a lurid campaign with heavy support from the most extreme anti-women’s-health wing of the Republican party in Wisconsin. His Todd Akin-like comments on rape might please his base, but are a big turnoff to women.
2. Ryan moved on from his abortion obsession to become an advocate for Social Security privatization and a chief cheerleader for the War in Iraq - neither of which have turned out to be winners with the public.
3. Ryan’s next stab at seizing national recognition was his famous budget blueprint which earned a loud and public rebuke from Catholic leaders for its harshness toward the poor. That policy document, which landed with a thud when Ryan first produced it, was revived as evidence of his brilliance within the Republican party establishment when he became Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. Ultimately, Ryan’s budget vision helped lead to Romney’s defeat, cementing the ticket’s image as a campaign for the 1%, trickledown economics, big tax breaks for corporations and the rich, and austerity for the poor.
5. On race, Ryan personifies the Republicans’ tone-deafness. He held a party, when he won his race for Congress, at a restaurant called The Cottonpicker in Burlington, Wisconsin. It’s possible that residents of small-town, white Burlington overlooked the racist implications of that name. Back in Janesville, Racine, and Kenosha, a hard-hit blue-collar African American community did not miss the implications. This is no accident. Paul Ryan has deliberately exploited racial divisions, the collapse of unions, and economic anxiety in his rust belt district. If there were still union jobs in his district, if he had prevented the closing of the GM plant in Janesville (which he tried, laughably, to blame on Obama who wasn’t even president when the plant closed), things would be different. This, after all, was liberal lion Les Aspin’s district before Paul Ryan. Ryan not only promotes a dystopian Ayn Rand vision of economics, he has staked his political career on a divisive “makers and takers” rhetoric that resonates with an angry, disaffected white working class that sees jobs and economic security slipping away—with no help from Paul Ryan.
6. On immigration, Ryan is reading from the same script as Donald Trump. He has talked about the “catch and release” of Mexican immigrants, as if they were animals, derided immigrant women for having “anchor babies,” and made a long list of other insensitive and inflammatory remarks in his town hall meetings and campaign appearances.
Ryan is both a proponent of radical rightwing ideology and a careerist. Depending on your perspective, that is either the perfect formula for reuniting the Republicans’ fractured coalition or a recipe for disaster at the polls. In fact, it might just be both.