U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, meets with members of the media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 25, 2016.
Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

Paul Ryan: Dem Party ‘run by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’

Updated
Though Election Day is still a couple of weeks away, and unpredictable things may yet happen, polling gives a reasonably good sense of what’s likely to happen. And with that in mind, it’s reasonable to think Hillary Clinton will be president next year, hoping to get something done by a Republican-run House led by Speaker Paul Ryan.

Ryan, however, is already sounding pessimistic notes about governing opportunities. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting report on the House Speaker’s perspective the other day.
Mr. Ryan tried to work out a corporate-tax-reform-for-infrastructure trade with Sen. Chuck Schumer, which he says failed because the Democratic Party is now “run by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This is not a party run by Alice Rivlin and Erskine Bowles. There aren’t 1990s Democrats in this party anymore.” He isn’t optimistic about an emergence of a pragmatic Hillary that some like to imagine.
Let’s note at the outset that tax reform failed, not because of Democratic extremism, but because Republicans walked away from the table, unwilling to accept a compromise.

Even putting this aside, Ryan’s complaint is one of his more common arguments: Democrats, the Wisconsin congressman believes, have moved too far to the left. In the 1990s, folks like Alice Rivlin and Erskine Bowles helped set the party’s direction on budget and fiscal issues, and now, the argument goes, they’ve been replaced by progressive firebrands. Ergo, well-intentioned Republicans, ready to negotiate and reach constructive solutions, are stuck trying and failing to negotiate with left-wing ideologues.

It’s a nice little theory, which simply isn’t true.

Before we get into some of the details, let’s note the most obvious problem with the Speaker’s thesis: when given a chance to work with the likes of Erskine Bowles and Alice Rivlin, Ryan rejected their centrist proposals as too liberal.

Indeed, it’s a detail that often goes overlooked, but Paul Ryan actually served on the debt-reduction panel Erskine Bowles helped lead, which is generally known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Ryan saw firsthand what Bowles came up with and rejected the bipartisan compromise.

Later, Alice Rivlin co-chaired the Domenici-Rivlin commission and Republicans rejected that compromise as too liberal, too.

In other words, Ryan longs for the day when Dems like Bowles and Rivlin were guiding the party, failing to note that their centrist policies couldn’t earn his support, either. The Speaker is effectively complaining, “Why can’t Democrats be more like they were 20 years ago, when their policies still weren’t good enough for me?”

What’s more, Ryan also overlooks the fact that when President Obama offered GOP lawmakers a “grand bargain,” it was to the right of the plans backed by the centrist Dems – featuring fewer tax increases and few Pentagon cuts than Bowles’ blueprint.

It makes Ryan’s complaint that much more foolish: the Speaker longs for the day when Dems had more centrist budget plans, failing to note that the Obama White House offered Ryan a plan that was even more conservative than the plans presented by centrist Dems, and Ryan said no to both.

The House Speaker may find it easier to slam progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but the fact remains that there’s ample evidence pointing in the opposite direction of his thesis.

Indeed, circling back to our coverage from July, Ryan wants to compare today’s Democrats to those of the mid-1990s, but if we compare the GOP to its version from a generation ago, the extremism would have been difficult to even fathom at the time.
 
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver published an analysis last year that explained, “The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now.” Again, this is a quantifiable matter: today’s Republican Party is the most radical of any American major party since the end of the Civil War.
 
I’m reminded anew of the critically important 2012 thesis from Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who famously wrote that the contemporary GOP “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition…. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”
 
To hear Ryan tell it last night, it’s tragic to see those rascally Democrats stray so far from the center. But if the Speaker sees himself as a fair-minded arbiter of what constitutes the American mainstream, he’s long overdue for a reality check.