To those Republicans who think the first 18 Republican presidents were merely misbegotten preludes to the magnificent 19th, Paul Ryan is guilty of the eighth deadly sin, which they consider the worst of the lot: cheerfulness.
They might not know that on Jan. 6, when a mob sacked the U.S. Capitol, Ryan wept.
This was two years after he ended his 10-term House tenure. Drafted by his colleagues to serve as House speaker, he was precluded from chairing the Ways and Means Committee, his highest ambition since he came to Congress with a vanishingly rare seriousness about policies for economic dynamism and a sustainable safety net of entitlements. The 2016 presidential election forced him into an excruciating collaboration. Had he sought reelection in 2018 from Wisconsin, he would have been volunteering for continuing complicity. So, he retired.
The Republicans’ 2012 vice-presidential nominee was, however, chosen by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to deliver on May 27 the first in what will be a series of speeches by Republican leaders on their party’s future.
Noting that there are statues of Reagan in London, Budapest, Berlin, Warsaw and Gdansk in Poland, and many other places because the ideas Reagan championed are “universal” and “as hopeful and compelling as ever,” he cited Indiana’s freshman Rep. Victoria Spartz. She immigrated from Ukraine at age 22 in 2000, and “has seen socialism up close and knows exactly where it leads.” Born in the Soviet Union, “she arranged to take her oath of office standing by a portrait of Ronald Reagan.”
Ryan referred obliquely to Jan. 6 – “it was horrifying to see a presidency come to such a dishonorable and disgraceful end” – and warned against basing conservatism on “the populist appeal of one personality, or of second-rate imitations. ... Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence and mettle. They will not be impressed by the sight of yes men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago.”
This elicited a belch of stale invective (Ryan is “a curse to the Republican Party”) from the man who was the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose the White House and his party’s control of both houses of Congress in just four years.
Some conservatives took characteristically strident exception to these Ryan words: “Culture matters, absolutely, yes, but our party must be defined by more than a tussle over the latest grievance or perceived slight. We must not let them take priority over solutions – grounded in principle – to improve people’s lives.” Having three school-age children, Ryan is keenly aware that “as the left gets more ‘woke,’ the rest of America is getting weary.”
He is scathing about Democrats’ identity politics that “has gone from ideology to obsession.” Theirs is a “dreary view of America as a collection of groups in perpetual conflict with each other” – “constantly accusing, suspecting, claiming victimhood.” But he correctly says, “too many people on the right are enamored with identity politics,” defining the party “by resentments instead of by ideals,” abandoning individualism for “the selfishness and grievance-collecting of tribe against tribe.”
Ryan, who never met Reagan, was 18 when Reagan left the presidency. In the eyes – eyes squinting with suspicion when not protuberant with anger – of those currently setting the GOP’s tone, Ryan’s invocation of Reagan is distasteful. It is discordant with their aversion to fiscal discipline (especially when their party holds the presidency; their hero ran a $1 trillion deficit at full employment). And with their growing enthusiasm for protectionism and other forms of industrial policy. Ryan, however, suggests effective language for 2022:
“Joe Biden was put into the presidency by swing suburban voters – the kind who normally vote Republican, but in this case did so only for Congress and not for president. They expected a center-left unifier. The problem is, he has focused on unifying, not the nation, but the Democratic Party, surrendering to its progressive base. ... In 2020, the country wanted a nice guy who would move to the center and depolarize our politics. Instead, we got a nice guy pursuing an agenda more leftist than any president in my lifetime.”
Not since Grover Cleveland, who lost as an incumbent in 1888 but won again in 1892, has a defeated president sought a second term. Many Republicans who disdain Ryan’s Reaganite optimism hope that if their hero cannot reprise 1892 in 2024, at least a second-rate imitator can succeed.
In either case, they will learn what a real “curse to the Republican Party” looks like.