House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. arrives for Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 24, 2017. Republican leaders have abruptly pulled...
Andrew Harnik

Following failure, Paul Ryan’s reputation may never be the same

A month ago today, CNN ran a report on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) efforts to prepare his party to advance an ambitious far-right agenda. The piece described the Wisconsin congressman as a “legendary wonk.”

Not just a wonk, mind you, but a legendary wonk.

The phrasing was a striking reminder of Ryan’s most impressive skill as a politician: convincing much of the Beltway establishment that he’s a knowledgeable policy expert with few, if any rivals on Capitol Hill. Ask some of Ryan’s admirers to point to any specific examples of the Speaker actually earning such a reputation, however, and they’ll generally hem and haw – because for those who care about the details, the fact that the GOP lawmaker speaks in complete sentences, and occasionally uses jargon that makes him appear knowledgeable, is not enough to mask the fact that Ryan isn’t a wonk, a legend, or even an especially capable Speaker of the House.

If there’s any justice, the failure of the ridiculous health care bill that Ryan wrote behind closed doors, and then failed to persuade his own members to support, should do permanent damage to the Speaker’s standing. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer noted last week that the demise of the American Health Care Act “should strike at the real root cause of the mess: The powerful, persistent Washington myth that Ryan is a policy genius.”
Paul Krugman called him a “flimflam man,” pointing out that the numbers Ryan touted in his imaginary budget didn’t add up, with the proposed tax cuts creating much bigger deficits than Ryan acknowledges. The AHCA fiasco vindicates Krugman’s harsh judgment. The “reform” was hated not just by Democrats but by actual Republican policy wonks – people who were critical of Obamacare, but saw the AHCA as doing nothing to make it better. […]

Ryan has been a scammer all along. He’s not a more serious Republican who offers a welcome relief from the frothing of the Tea Party. He’s an Ayn Rand acolyte who fully shares the agenda of the hard right on economic matters. And his long con is now obvious for all the world to see. “Never give a sucker an even break,” W.C. Fields used to say. Anyone who continues to think of Paul Ryan as a legislative wizard or a serious policy thinker richly deserves to be called “sucker.”
We are, after all, talking about a Speaker who put together a presentation a couple of weeks ago at which he seemed baffled by the literal definition of “insurance.”

The Guardian added that Ryan’s bill was such “a horrendous concoction” that it should “disabuse fawning congressional reporters of the notion that the speaker is a man of deep intellect and self-reflection.”

But wait, some Ryan devotees will say, perhaps the Speaker’s prowess as a policy expert has been exaggerated to an unhealthy degree, but that doesn’t mean he’s in the wrong job. Plenty of great House Speakers have excelled with great leadership skills, even if they fall short on understanding policy details.

It’s a nice try, but Ryan is proving himself inept on both fronts. He wrote a dreadful piece of legislation, panned by friend and foe alike as a proposal that simply could not work in practice, and he then failed at a Speaker’s most basic task: persuading his own members to support his plan by making his case on the merits.

Slate’s Jordan Weissmann summarized Ryan’s troubles in an especially brutal sentence: “Aside from the occasional PowerPoint, it’s really not clear what the man is good for.”

Think about the basics of what makes a good House Speaker: the ability to set a clear agenda, build coalitions, forge compromises, manage the floor, listen to members, identify the best legislative ideas (while shielding his members from the worst ideas), all while leading an often raucous, clumsy chamber of 435 people.

Ryan didn’t want the Speaker’s gavel, and in hindsight, his instincts were sound. He’s not much of a lawmaker – after having served under four presidents, Ryan’s portfolio of legislative successes is practically non-existent – and he’s an even worse Speaker. Vox’s Dylan Matthews noted the other day, “[I]n his first major test, Ryan has not shown the ability of even a Hastert or a Gingrich. The haphazard, chaotic nature of this process suggests he has a chance of becoming the single least effective speaker in decades.”

The disconnect is between Ryan’s skill set and what’s required of him as the Speaker of the House. Adam Jentleson, a former senior adviser to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), had a fascinating series of tweets on Friday explaining that the Wisconsin Republican excels at presenting his regressive agenda in palatable ways that impress his unsuspecting marks, but a Speaker doesn’t need to be an adept public salesperson. “Many of the stories about why Ryan would be a good Speaker cited the fact that he would go on TV a lot,” Adam Jentleson noted. “That should have been a red flag.”

Nancy Pelosi probably isn’t the most impressive television guest in Congress, but she’s long excelled as a legislator, and she’s cultivated the kind of record that’s so impressive, there should almost certainly be more talk of naming a Capitol Hill building after her.

Pelosi was a vastly better Speaker than speaker. For Paul Ryan, this dynamic is reversed.