The Wolf in Wonk’s Clothing

Paul Ryan tried to sell fiscal austerity as a moral crusade. Then Donald Trump came along.

Paul Ryan.
House Speaker Paul Ryan announces he won’t seek re-election in November, on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

A century or so in political time has passed since 2014’s Conservative Political Action Conference, but there were two speeches given over the course of that weekend that are perhaps worth remembering today. One was an immigrant-bashing midday address delivered by Donald J. Trump, then a sideshow act performing for the party fringe. The other was a speech by Paul Ryan, which became the subject of a brief media dust-up just a few hours later. The passage in question began with a few standard jabs at Obamacare, which, according to Ryan, would discourage millions of Americans from working. “The left is making a big mistake here,” he said. “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.” He explained this odd remark with a story:

You know, this reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the Cabinet of my buddy, Gov. Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a very poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch—one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.

There was, understandably, a lot of doubt in the liberal press about whether this encounter had actually happened. Not long after Ryan left the stage, word came that it had not. Anderson, fact-checkers discovered, originally told Ryan the story during a House Budget Committee hearing Ryan had chaired. If this kid tells me a brown bag was more important than a free lunch, we’ve missed the whole notion of parents being there for their children because we’ve taken over that responsibility,” Anderson told the committee.

After Ryan’s CPAC speech Anderson’s spokesperson told reporters she’d actually seen the boy in a television interview. It soon emerged that the boy in question was Maurice Mazyck, the subject of Laura Schroff’s memoir An Invisible Thread. In the book, Mazyck, an 11-year old panhandler, refuses not a free lunch but Schroff’s offer to give him lunch money. He asks, instead, for Schroff to give him a free lunch directly. “When I see kids come to school with their lunch in a paper bag, that means someone cares about them,” he says. “Miss Laura, can I please have my lunch in a paper bag?” In a statement posted to Facebook after the speech, Ryan said that Anderson “misspoke.”

Like most gaffes, the incident was quickly forgotten. But it’s worth revisiting now, as Ryan prepares his exit from politics, the thrust of the argument that the tale advanced—that, in general, the 20 million children in this country who receive free lunches have parents who clearly don’t care about them and that in providing food to those children, the government enables bad parenting. That sweeping judgment is impossible unless one considers poverty and economic hardship themselves personal failings. For about a decade now, Ryan has demonstrated that he believes precisely this—that those who have trouble making their way in the world are personally defective, that those immiserated by circumstance have willingly surrendered their lives to dysfunction, and that the best remedy society can offer to those who lack is to deprive them, in cuts to already meager social programs, of even more.

Shaping that dogmatism into pseudo-wonkery has taken years of wild and reckless obfuscation. Most of the analyses of where Trump “came from” have sought and found precedents for his open xenophobia, conspiracymongering, and boorishness in the rhetoric and behavior of Republican politicians in the recent past. But his mendacity and the constant consequence-free dissembling of his administration still baffle all those who’ve wondered aloud, over the past year and a half, how we so suddenly entered a new age of “post-truth” politics. We haven’t, really. Paul Ryan understood, like Trump, the extent to which the norms governing conventional political journalism have always been poorly equipped to handle naked and persistent dishonesty and disingenuousness. His speech to the 2012 Republican National Convention was littered with blatant lies—for instance, that Obamacare raised taxes on “nearly a million small businesses” (it did not), that the stimulus had been the “largest one-time expenditure ever by our federal government” (it wasn’t), and that Obama had “raided” Medicare to fund Obamacare (cuts were made to hospital and insurance payments under Obamacare to fund new benefits, and Ryan had proposed cutting Medicare by the same amount to fund tax cuts). But even among incensed voices in the blogosphere, there were few willing to denounce him as a charlatan as forcefully as Trump is denounced today. There were no on-screen captions brusquely debunking his statements in real time, no sharply pointed headlines. “In Ryan Critique of Obama,” a New York Times’ head read instead, “Omissions Help Make the Case.” The Associated Press wrote that the speech had taken “factual shortcuts.” “Fact Checkers,” NPR reported, “Say Some of Ryan’s Claims Don’t Add Up.”

Ryan showed, too—long before Trump was taken seriously—the political possibilities available to those brazen enough to openly call large swaths of the population leeches. It is scarcely mentioned, even in criticisms of Ryan’s proposals, that his ideal policy regime, like Trump’s, would upend the lives of millions of minorities or that the project of welfare reform, which Ryan, by his own admission, signed up enthusiastically for in his youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s has historically been animated by straightforward racism. All told, Ryan’s most lasting legacy may be his role in helping the conservative movement launder its messaging against anti-poverty programs—once freighted with obviously coded tall tales about welfare queens—into tidier, more superficially respectable rhetoric.

He’s also managed to whitewash the origins of his own ideological priors. Every now and then in the Obama years, comments Ryan had made about the philosopher Ayn Rand—the co-author of, in addition to more famous works, a book clarifyingly titled The Virtue of Selfishness—would be resurfaced by liberal journalists. In 2012, for instance, a number of articles made reference to a video on Rand he’d posted to his Facebook page. With the entry of the Obama administration, Ryan argued, it could reasonably be said “that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel, metaphorically speaking.” “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism,” he continued. “And this to me is what matters most. It is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big, or the health care plan doesn’t work for this or that policy reason. It is the morality of what is occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will—to produce, to achieve, to succeed—that is under attack.”

The conservative press did diligent work shooting down speculation about Rand’s influence. “Ryan’s actual philosophy … couldn’t be further from the caricature,” National Review’s Robert Costa, now of the Washington Post, wrote in a piece on the subject. With a chuckle Ryan told Costa his love of Rand was an “urban legend.” “I reject her philosophy,” he said. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.” After that piece was published, Randian group the Atlas Society, presumably a little tired of the back and forth, posted a transcript and audio of a speech Ryan had made at its 2005 “Celebration of Ayn Rand”:

I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There’s a big debate about that. We go to Fountainhead, but then we move on, and we require Mises and Hayek as well.

I always go back to Francisco d’Anconia’s speech [in Atlas Shrugged] on money when I think about monetary policy. But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.

It was strange in 2012, amid febrile babbling on the right about Marxists lurking somewhere among Wall Street alums in the Obama administration, to witness the steady, unchecked rise of a genuine radical—an unambiguous ideologue who actually did seem bent on dramatically changing the relationship between the American people and their government. A man who, whether he was a doctrinaire objectivist or not, clearly believed and frequently said that American society was fundamentally divided between productive “makers” and parasitic “takers.” People who held this view of Ryan were told repeatedly, by centrists and even some liberals, that he advanced his budget proposals out of real, well-grounded concerns about the size of the federal deficit, in and of itself, and that he was a serious, fair-minded fiscal hawk worthy of respect. “Republican budget wonk Paul Ryan clearly believes in big ideas,” the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote upon the release of Ryan’s budget plan in 2010. Ezra Klein, while noting that Ryan’s cuts to Medicare and Medicaid would be “violent,” agreed that Ryan’s proposals were being offered in good faith. “[H]is proposal is among the few I’ve seen that’s willing to propose solutions in proportion to the problem,” he wrote. “Whether or not you like his answer, you have to give him credit for stepping up to the chalkboard.”

A casual observer of politics at the time, given this kind of talk and Ryan’s youthful looks, could have been forgiven for thinking that the then 40-year-old congressman was some fresh-faced upstart who’d just arrived in Washington, spreadsheets in hand. In fact, by the time he, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy declared themselves part of “a new generation of conservative leaders” in the book Young Guns that September, Paul Ryan had been in the House for more than a decade. He’d not only watched the federal deficit grow over the course of the Bush administration, he’d voted, numerous times, to increase it. Ryan supported the Bush tax cuts and the bank bailouts. He signed blank checks for the war on terror. In 2005, he co-sponsored a plan to privatize Social Security that would have increased the deficit by $2.4 trillion over 10 years. As if to give the game away, Ryan paired his proposed cuts during the Obama administration with massive tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy—“makers”—that had no business being tacked onto putatively serious and rational plans to get the federal budget in order.

In fairness to those pundits who helped build Ryan’s reputation as a technocrat, there was little separating the extremism in Ryan’s proposals from the Darwinian hokum his party had been pushing for decades. Calling bullshit on Paul Ryan would have meant calling bullshit on the entire Republican policy agenda. It would have meant treating claims about the relationships between the national debt and the risk of inflation, between tax rates and economic growth, and between welfare programs and social mobility not as matters of opinion, but as empirically falsifiable matters of social science. And it would have sullied the neutral press with demands for answers to moral questions about what we owe to the disadvantaged and what responsibilities wealth might confer upon the individually rich and us all as an unprecedentedly wealthy nation.

There have been signs though, in political coverage since December’s tax bill—a piece of legislation that will increase the deficit by nearly $1.5 trillion and that Ryan on Wednesday called one of his biggest accomplishments—that the press might be wising up. A headline from the Washington Post in February reported that “Republicans Are Completely Reversing Themselves on the Deficit”—the print equivalent of a cartoon lightbulb flickering dimly overhead. But the epiphanies have come late. The last Democratic administration was hobbled by an interminable series of unnecessary debt negotiations covered by a press more interested in chiding Congress for failing to deepen fiscal austerity measures by bipartisan agreement than it was in covering the impact of sequestration and other budget cuts on millions of poor and unemployed Americans already treading water in the middle of the recession.

And although the prospects of large-scale entitlement reform this election year seem dubious and Ryan’s boyhood dream of kicking millions off Medicaid via block granting was thwarted by the failure of Obamacare repeal, his fingerprints are visible in key places on the Trump administration’s domestic policy agenda. Last year, Ryan sent legislation approving drug tests for beneficiaries of unemployment insurance to the White House with a grin. And earlier this week, House Republicans proposed new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would cut 1 million people from the program over the next 10 years. It’s not quite entitlement reform, but Ryan seems poised to spend much of his time as a private citizen figuring out how Republicans might get there eventually. Politico’s Jake Sherman wrote Wednesday that Ryan has “hinted at continuing his work on curing poverty.” The con, it seems, may be far from over.