The True Tragedy of Paul Ryan


He didn’t ask for the Speakership. And unlike many ambitious politicians who coyly deny their interest in the presidency or other high offices while they quietly lay the ground-work for their predictable runs, Paul Ryan’s actions preceding his elevation to the highest legislative office in the land suggests clearly that this was an honor he was willing to avoid. Prior to becoming Speaker of the House and even a Vice-Presidential nominee, Congressman Ryan was one of that most rare and desirable breed of legislators; the kind that takes policy more seriously than ideology, and the kind that values responsible governance over partisanship. It was the moral capital he accrued as both an honest and an educated policy maker that made him the only plausible choice to rise to the speakership back in 2015, during a moment of unique division both between the two parties and within his own Republican Party. And it was this tenuous and conditional goodwill that has been crushed beneath the weight of forces foreseeable and unforeseeable, tarnishing the image of one of Washington’s few good men in the eyes of the American people—left and right.

Paul D. Ryan, Jr. was first elected to represent Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district in 1999, when he was just shy of 30 years old. The son of four previous generations of Irish-Wisconsinites on his father’s side (Ryan’s father was an attorney and his mother worked as an interior designer), it made sense that Ryan would be both the model student and athlete that he proved himself to be. Wisconsin is a state known more for cold winters and raw geography than for tall buildings and urban sprawl, and Ryan like other young men and women there grew to be a product of the physically invigorating lifestyle this sort of environment produces. He competed in skiing, track, and soccer on the varsity level, later moonlighting as a fitness trainer while in his first congressional staff position. He was a member of the Model United Nations Club on campus, was elected junior class president and prom king.

It may be fair then to say that Ryan was privileged. Still most of his privileges derived from the work he invested in creating them. And unlike many successful men, you won’t find many people who know Ryan personally to dislike him, either in his younger days or later. He was known to be humble by many, and that might be due in part to the fact that he knew loss and responsibility as a young man. He found his father dead of a heart attack as he lied in bed at the age of 55. Ryan himself was 16 and then had to care for his elderly grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s while his mother worked to keep them afloat. As his critics would point out later, part of what helped Ryan save for college were the Social Security Survivors benefits his family became eligible for at that time. To some the irony in this is that Ryan has been accused of wanting to eliminate such benefits for Americans later in his career. But what Ryan likely remembers is that his family had to scrimp and save judiciously out of this money to make the most of the opportunity it allowed for him, and that without fiscal responsibility and hard work to go behind it this would not have amounted to much.

As with most women and men, it is worth looking at where Ryan came from to start to understand who he is today and why. Long a student of Austrian economics and the teachings of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, Ryan’s economic perspective reflects the values of individualism and self-determination that these teachings suggest are at the heart of a society’s success, freedom and moral foundation. Such perspectives seem heartless to many on the political left, and to the extent to which he has advocated for them Ryan has been painted a villain because of it.

On the other hand, though he grew up a Christian and is rooted in an economic orthodoxy that is solidly right wing, he comes from a Catholic tradition that does not quite embrace the cultural wars nor embodies the unyielding social stridence that characterizes much of the conservative Baptist and Calvinist evangelicalism that has animated so much of the conservative movement since the 1970’s, when Ryan was a boy. He came of age during this time, but being also a person who has worked from deep within the political system since he was a young man (he’s still relatively young), and being by nature a person who prefers to solve problems then play politics if he can, Ryan never truly adopted the all or nothing warfare mentality that has characterized the partisan right, particularly in the Tea Party and post Tea Party age. He has been willing to work across the aisle at key moments in his political career, establishing friendly and productive relationships with Democratic Senators like Patty Murray, now Senator Chris Van Hollen, and even to a degree with Barack Obama.

So then, to many on the right, he is worse than a villain: he is a turncoat, a traitor, and a coward.

Actually he is a coward to most of the left as well. Public intellectual Sam Harris has called him “craven.” California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has tagged him the “cowardly lion,” sparking a series of Wizard of Oz style memes that have gained some traction. 200 people sought to meet Ryan with chants of “coward!” in response to his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act and for supporting funding of President Trumps border wall. In general, Democrats have thought Ryan cowardly for his passive legitimization of the Trump presidency—a regime defined in the eyes of many for its focus on policies and rhetoric viewed as racist, hateful, and destructive to the safety and equality of ordinary Americans.

Yet somehow Ryan has managed to earn this ire from the left while being scourged as a pro-amnesty collaborator by talk radio host Mark Levin and Breitbart news, called a ‘sellout enemy of Trump’ according to Fox News’ Lou Dobbs, and plotted against by vast swaths of his own Republican conference in the House of Representatives eager to see his political head hoisted high on a spike. Indeed, Ryan has supported legal status for the vast majority of illegal immigrants, has seemed willing to preserve major parts of the infrastructure of the Affordable Care Act even while trying to replace it, and was President Obama’s major partner in pushing and adopting the Trans Pacific Partnership into law.

Then of course, there is the simple fact that while he did not oppose Donald Trump near as vociferously as Democrats desired during the presidential election, Ryan did oppose Trump in the primary and rendered less support to his party’s nominee than possibly any Speaker of the House has done for his or her party’s candidate in the entire history of American presidential politics.

The pictures that are painted of Paul Ryan are largely colored by the thoughtless partisanship of which he is a victim. But what can be said of Paul Ryan that might be more fair?

Has he been a magnificent Speaker of the House? It is hard argue that he has. Though Ryan and the Republican House have recently managed a historic political victory in passing major tax reform legislation they failed to pass a healthcare reform bill that the party as a whole had 7 years to work on (including two with Ryan as Speaker). There was no more important part of the Republican agenda than that, and now the odds are strong that meaningful immigration reform fails to pass through congress as well.

It is also true that Paul Ryan has offered but controlled condemnation of the ethical failings of President Trump (and his more disreputable acolytes) during a moment in American history where the great moral calling of much of the American public (including a certain number of Republicans) has been to resist Trump, his perceived racism, his alleged corruption and criminality, at perhaps any and all costs.

Ultimately it may be fair to say that Ryan’s true sins are subjective. On the one hand, he has sinned against those who want political leadership that is not merely conservative, but unyielding to compromise and hostile to opposing points of view. As conservative as he is, Ryan still believes in a government that works and that incorporates the views of the opposition as much as is possible. For that he is condemned.

On the other hand, he has sinned against those who wish for a speaker who would take a defiant stand against the moral transgressions of a president whose bitter offenses seem to transcend politics. Here, Ryan’s failing is that for all of President Trump’s flaws Ryan still believes in the importance of the conservative philosophy that partisans to his right believe he does not believe in enough.

Paul Ryan has worked his entire life and career to get to the point to where he could help steer America in the direction of economic freedom, prosperity, and opportunity for all people. His vision for how this works of course is consistent with the way he has long been taught these ends are accomplished. Donald Trump’s grievous divisiveness notwithstanding, his core policy agenda has not been radically out of step with that of conservative presidents and politicians before him. Those who ask Ryan stand against the president at every turn ask him to cast aside his life’s work and everything else he legitimately believes in to take a stand that for them is easy because they do not share any of his other concerns. Therefore, they do not have to acknowledge any of his other burdens.

A greater man might be able to bridge this chasm of values that exists between the American people. Paul Ryan does not seem to be that man. But that does not mean he is not a good man. The true tragedy of Paul Ryan is that the American people cannot see this.  For the true Paul Ryan is neither the sellout nor the coward that too many Americans across the spectrum have charged him to be. The true Paul Ryan is the man who, upon accepting the Speaker’s gavel before the assembled bipartisan members of congress, stood conscious of the bitter feeling in our political moment and spoke these words to the chamber:


So if you ever pray, pray for each other— Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because—when you’re up here, you see it so clearly—wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.

I never thought I’d be the speaker. But early in my life, I wanted to serve in the House. I thought the place was exhilarating—because here, you could make a difference. If you had a good idea and worked hard, you could make it happen. You could improve people’s lives. To me, the House represented the best of America: the boundless opportunity to do good.

But let’s be frank: The House is broken. We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame.


One man like Paul Ryan is not enough to fix America’s politics. But if all men were more like Paul Ryan, our political system would be saved.


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