by Will WilkinsonContributing Opinion WriterApril 13, 2018
Spinoza said that free will is like a stone that doesn’t know why it’s falling but wants to keep going. On Wednesday, Paul Ryan announced that he would not seek re-election. A midterm defeat, should Mr. Ryan have chosen to run, wasn’t exactly inevitable. But when no less an authority than the speaker of the House of Representatives expressed the desire to rejoin his children, with all the freedom of plummeting rock longing to eat dirt, it confirmed what practically everyone suspects: The Republican Party is in free fall, and its House majority is racing toward annihilation.
Mr. Ryan may be oblivious to the ultimate cause of his entirely free and unforced decision to spend more time with his kids, but it is, in a nutshell, Paul Ryan. He is truly the author of his own destiny.
Politics isn’t physics, but a governing Republican philosophy that sees it as a moral imperative to slash the budgets of social programs that benefit mainly older and working-class white people is bound, sooner or later, to drive a party of mainly older and working-class white people off a cliff. The slow-motion disaster now unfolding in Washington results in no small measure from Mr. Ryan’s puzzling success in persuading Republican elites that they could flourish as the party of free-market, anti-redistributive convictions.
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Mr. Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” released in 2008, at the time of the catastrophic collapse of the American economy, set out a plan for the radical retrenchment of the American welfare state. It made a splash. Mr. Ryan became the party’s de facto wonk in chief and played a critical role giving the Tea Party’s otherwise inchoate politics of grievance a definitive shape. As he rose to the commanding heights of the Republican Party, first as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and then as speaker of the House in 2015, Mr. Ryan’s libertarian-leaning technocratic tactics for the piecemeal dismantling of the safety net became party orthodoxy.
Mr. Ryan’s ideas have always resonated with the corporate Republican donor class. But they are indifferent, at best, to the challenges faced by the mass of ordinary Republican voters. For decades, American innovation and growth has been largely concentrating in a handful of big liberal cities. When the recovery finally came, it came to the Democratic metropolis. Most of the sparse Republican outlands never bounced back.
Jobs were scarce, opioid addiction was rife, and life felt insecure. Indeed, life expectancy for many rural whites fell. A few red states graced with booming metro areas, like Texas, flourished under Republican regimes of low taxes and light regulation. But in more rural Republican states, like Kansas under Mr. Ryan’s mentor and former boss, Gov. Sam Brownback, taxes had been cut to the bone, and the promised boom never materialized to make up for the loss and degradation of public services.
Meanwhile, many tens of millions of loyal Republicans in struggling regions came to rely on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance and disability benefits just to scrape by. By 2016, the last thing grass-roots Republicans wanted was yet another bloodless, ideologically rigid iteration of the stale Reagan formula. But thanks to the intellectual leadership of dogmatically small-government conservatives like Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, that’s mostly what they got. Except from Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump spotted opportunity in the injured dignity of the Republican base and the feckless irrelevance of the establishment’s agenda. He told Republicans shaken by the reality and risk of downward mobility that they were the only Americans who counted, and that they had been cheated and betrayed.
He promised never to cut their Social Security or Medicare, and expressed admiration for single-payer health care. He took their side against immigrant rapists, murderous jihadis, plundering trade deals, dangerous city people and disloyal, condescending elites of all parties and persuasions. He promised to use his billionaire superpowers to rig the economy to their advantage. It didn’t matter that he is a transparently corrupt, bigoted, sexually abusive, compulsive liar. He offered the dignity of recognition, promised to fight, and won.
Mr. Ryan, who had dreamed of building a more inclusive party, was sincerely horrified by Mr. Trump’s divisive white-identity politics. But there wasn’t anything he and the Republican establishment could do about it. They had nothing with which to fight the towering inferno of resentment they had kindled through their arrogant, ideologically driven indifference to the pressing needs of the people they claim to represent.
As soon as Mr. Trump clinched the nomination, Mr. Ryan became as tame as a poodle. Congressional leaders hoped that Mr. Trump’s need for political cover might make him tractable, and that unified government would enable them to finally set America on the path to broad-based prosperity through tax cuts, entitlement reform and the replacement of Obamacare with something no one had bothered to work out.
But the Republican majority was crippled from the start by the fundamental conflict between a government-shrinking agenda and the immediate material interests of Republican voters. Thus, the only thing Mr. Ryan has to show for his meekness in the face of Mr. Trump’s corruption and bigotry is an enormous tax cut that leaves the level of government spending basically untouched, except for interest payments on the debt, which the Congressional Budget Office now estimates will outstrip annual military spending in five years.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump is bulldozing congressional Republicans into a mass grave. Democrats outnumber Republicans, so the latter depend on a sizable turnout advantage to win elections and sustain minority rule. But Mr. Trump’s brand of scapegoating demagogy, which Mr. Ryan as speaker has done nothing but enable, is a turbocharged Democratic turnout machine that converts swing districts into Democratic seats and converts enormous Republican advantages into razor’s edge contests. Barring a miracle, Republicans are going to lose their House majority, and even their Senate majority, once thought untouchable, is no longer safe.
So Mr. Ryan has cornered himself, and his party. The Republican base won’t buy what he’s selling, unless it’s awkwardly grafted onto white-identity populism, which is a self-annihilating strategy for mobilizing Democrats to the polls.
The forthcoming implosion of Mr. Ryan’s party, and his imminent retreat to Wisconsin, illustrates the danger of hidebound ideological overconfidence. Party elites in the grip of dogma can’t see the point of checking in with the people they represent and are blind to new problems the partisan catechism is not equipped to comprehend. If a decent Republican Party one day rises from the devastation Paul Ryan practically invited Donald Trump to inflict, it will be one that has stopped legislating for an imaginary world of self-financing tax cuts, having rediscovered and realigned with the basic interests of aging and working-class white suburban and rural American voters. It will take their woes seriously, and nurture their welfare, not their grievance.
Will Wilkinson is a contributing opinion writer and the vice president for policy at the Niskanen Center.