Wayne O'Leary

The Savior

Late last fall, when House Republicans elevated Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and proclaimed budget guru, to be the next speaker, replacing the outgoing John Boehner, members of the inside-the-Beltway media were all atwitter. At last, a constructive, clearheaded adult would be in charge, not an ineffectual, run-of-the-mill institutionalist like his predecessor, nor a wild-eyed member of one of the body’s right-wing caucuses. Best of all, Ryan, the GOP vice-presidential candidate in 2012, was a charter member of the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction commission. Now, government would surely work as intended.

Media types have had a protracted romance with Ryan extending back over a decade. The youthful, dynamic appearance, the handsome visage and sculpted physique, the Sinatra-Newman blue eyes, and lately the trendy beard signifying self-confidence: what’s not to like if you’re into superficialities? More particularly, the press has been mesmerized by Ryan the numbers man, whose command of budgetary minutiae suggests a no-nonsense understanding of the practicalities of governance. He sure sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, especially to those who haven’t checked to see if his numbers add up.

Democrats, too, see an honorable opponent they can work with to save the republic. At least he’s not one of those crazed tea partiers of the Republican Freedom Caucus, dedicated to destroying President Obama and the federal government. And he’s not California representative Kevin McCarthy, initially tabbed by Boehner as his successor, whose persona included an unfortunate inability to deliver an understandable speech free of bizarre malapropisms. Can’t have an incompetent running the show, thought the chortling Democrats and liberals, who literally rooted for McCarthy’s implosion. With a crucial election coming up, they may regret not having him as a convenient foil to highlight the shortcomings of the GOP Congress.

Paul Ryan, whatever else he may be, is nobody’s fool and no timeserving careerist; he’s a committed, goal-oriented ideological conservative, a devotee of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, who thinks strategically. Unlike the Trumps and Cruzes of his party, he is less about self-promotion and more about instituting right-wing policy. That actually makes him potentially more dangerous, both to the country generally and to the progressive movement in particular. Those who see the new speaker as someone capable of making a dysfunctional Congress function could be right; the end result may be a whole other matter. (As always, be careful what you wish for.)

Ryan first came to public attention during the Bush administration, when as a junior congressman he broached the notion of privatizing Social Security, an idea pushed half-heartedly by George W. in 2005 and eventually allowed to die. As initially advanced by Ryan, the plan called for workers investing half of their individual payroll taxes in private accounts.

In 2008, Ryan revisited the idea as Republican leader of the House Budget Committee, in a campaign document called the Roadmap for America’s Future. It scaled back proposed Social Security investment accounts from one-half of FICA to one-third, but added phaseouts of Medicare and Medicaid to the mix — Medicare replaced by direct payments (vouchers) to seniors for purchase of private insurance, and Medicaid converted into bloc grants to the states for their discretionary application, thereby inviting lower standards of care.

The objective of the Roadmap, according to Ryan Lizza’s penetrating profile of Ryan in The New Yorker (August 6, 2012), was to curtail the American welfare state and radically cut federal spending by making individual seniors and individual states responsible for the country’s retirement and health-care systems. Seniors would take care of themselves; the poor would get whatever medical care states decided was affordable or appropriate. The money available from Washington to ease the retrenchment wouldn’t amount to much, because Ryan would simultaneously impose draconian cuts to government revenues in the form of drastically lower income taxes.

Everything the new House speaker has proposed since has followed the outlines of the Roadmap. In 2011, shortly before joining Mitt Romney on the GOP ticket, Ryan presented an updated action plan, this one christened the Path to Prosperity. It deferred Social Security privatization, but retained a voucherized Medicare system, repealed the Affordable Care Act, and effectively cut Medicaid a third by not compensating for rising medical costs. Vice President Joe Biden easily exposed the flaws in Ryan’s marketplace approach during their 2012 debate, and the Romney-Ryan campaign went down to defeat. But now Ryan is back, chastened but unbowed, rising like a phoenix and ready to peddle his nostrums as speaker.

The new, improved Paul Ryan was on display last month during a Dec. 3 leadership speech before an adoring GOP congressional audience. His partisan goal, he declared, would be to “put together a complete alternative to the left’s agenda,” and for starters, he ticked off a conservative overhaul of the entire tax code, passage of corporate-friendly trade agreements, and sharply increased military spending. Entitlement “reform” was not mentioned, but it’s certainly simmering on a back burner. This Randian vision, which Ryan contrasted with archnemesis progressivism, was “to see spending going down, taxes going down, debt going down.”

The first concrete demonstration of Ryan’s speakership style was his shepherding through of the $1.1 trillion “compromise” spending bill for 2016 just before Christmas. True to form, the measure included $650 billion in tax cuts, mostly for business interests, which will add substantially to the purportedly ruinous deficit. The speaker himself is said to believe in the faith-based, supply-side myth that such tax reductions pay for themselves through increased economic growth; besides, they leave less money available for government programs — a win-win for Republicans.

Among the temporary corporate tax breaks made permanent was the R&D write-off ($113 billion the first decade), one of 50 such industry tax subsidies now chiseled in stone. Also included was a provision ending the 40-year ban on crude-oil exports from the US, an outright gift to Big Oil. (What energy crisis?) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decried the giveaways as favoritism for special interests, but over in the Senate, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hailed Speaker Ryan’s “pragmatic” approach to getting things done.

Therein lies the rub: too many Democrats think they’ve at last found a man they can do business with — to their peril. Br’er Fox is already in the henhouse.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2016


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