Photo by Gage Skidmore
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to have “2020 vision.” That is what’s apparently driving his artful crafting of a new and more broadly appealing “moderate” image for himself, in advance of the presidential election four years from now.
As part of his image makeover, Ryan has prominently declared his disinterest in jumping into the GOP presidential fray, and has defended Republican principles from Donald Trump’s divisive and exclusionary campaign statements. Ryan has also renounced his smug, rhetoric against the poor—claiming that indolent “takers” are using tax dollars to drain the resources of “the makers” who actually create jobs and wealth, for example. But this rhetorical shift is not matched by changes in his policies, and seem calculated to shield Ryan from criticism on the morality of his budget plans. Some of the sharpest attacks coming have come from within the Catholic Church, including his former parish priest.
Ryan has already been crowned by the Beltway media as “the brains” of the Republican Party, purportedly immersing himself in budgetary details and then emerging with “bold” policy proposals. Yet most of Ryan’s “fresh” programs are simply repackaged rightwing policies. Ryan fervently believes, at this moment of record-level economic inequality in America, in ever-larger tax breaks for corporations and the top 1 percent. He has called the need to lower top tax rates “even more pressing now” than it was back in Reagan’s presidency “because the American economy was so dominant in the global economy and capital was not nearly as mobile as it is today.”
Meanwhile, Ryan has applied a chainsaw to Social programs ranging from Medicare to food stamps to school lunches, while pushing for an expanded military funding. Further, Ryan is to the right of Donald Trump on preserving Social Security. He is among the most extreme members of Congress on women’s reproductive rights, opposing abortion in all cases including those involving rape, incest, and the mother’s chances for survival.
Whatever the goal of Ryan’s image-building project, his policies remain aimed at protecting America’s structure of inequality, funneling more wealth upward to the top 1 percent while slashing programs needed by poor and working people, promoting the offshoring of more jobs through “free-trade” agreements, limiting women’s reproductive rights, and backing a “more robust” military for overseas interventions.
Recently, the fratricidal, destructive war between Trump and Ted Cruz ignited speculation that the energetic and youthful “moderate” Paul Ryan might come bounding forward ready to seek the Republican president nomination at the July convention in Cleveland. Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair breathlessly wrote, “The youthful, widely respected House Speaker combines Ted Cruz’s intellectual conservatism with John Kasich’s moderate congressional track record, a touch of a reformist impulse, plus the added bonus of not being Donald Trump.”
Ryan very publicly announced that he was not running, and will confine his role to serving as convention chairman and setting a civil and unifying tone. By not entering the contest, Ryan reinforced the image acquired when he reluctantly yielded to a chorus of Republican to assume the role of House Speaker: Ryan is a selfless guy who simply wants to do what’s best for his party and his nation.
Ryan won widespread praise from media pundits for speaking out against Trump’s venomous tone, telling an audience at an elaborately orchestrated event: “People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemy.” He offered proof of his conversion to this creed by criticizing himself for his past “makers and takers” rhetoric.
Paul Ryan is sculpting a new image for himself with the same dedication he famously devotes to sculpting his body. But whatever the refinements in his image, Ryan’s vision for America remains the same, and it would intensify the most severe problems in our society. The thought of President Ryan is scary indeed.
Roger Bybee is a labor studies instructor and longtime progressive activist and writer who edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years.