On Tuesday, Congressman Paul Ryan announced he would run to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House after initially turning down the job, but only if House Republicans, and especially the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, met a series of demands. On Wednesday night, Freedom Caucus members announced they would not endorse him or his specific requests, but over two-thirds of them would vote for him as speaker.
“I’m grateful for the support of a supermajority of the House Freedom Caucus," Ryan said in a statement Wednesday night, calling the announcement "a positive step toward a unified Republican team" and adding that he was waiting for the other GOP caucuses to weigh in. Based on those remarks, it sounds like Ryan is still a go for speaker despite the mixed messages from the House Freedom Caucus.
If it were possible to travel back in time five years, the idea that Ryan's support for speaker would be most threatened by the GOP's right wing would have struck most observers as absurd. For a long stretch, Ryan was extremely popular in tea party circles, but the latest back and forth in the House reflects the serious pushback from conservatives surrounding his bid. Here’s how Ryan and the hard right drifted apart.
Who is Paul Ryan?
Paul Ryan is a congressman from Wisconsin who won his first election in 1998 at the young age of 28. He is the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes, and he formerly served as the Budget Committee chairman. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney picked him as his running mate against President Obama.
Why is he such a big deal though?
Love him or hate him, Ryan is probably the most influential Republican member of Congress in the Obama era. Much of that has to do with a series of budget proposals he’s authored that would turn Medicare into a voucher program, make sweeping cuts to entitlement spending and lower tax rates for wealthy earners and corporations.
But doesn’t every Republican want that?
It seems hard to believe now, but when Ryan released the first iteration of his budget in 2010 it was a political bombshell.
The GOP was in the minority and gearing up for the midterm elections, where the weak economy and growing tea party movement made the GOP favorites to retake the House. Wary of giving their opponents any ammo to attack them, GOP candidates talked a big game about slashing spending but rarely gave specifics – especially when it came to changing popular programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Republicans had good reason to be concerned. Under President George W. Bush, the Republican Party hit its electoral peak in 2004 after downplaying deficits and passing a pricey expansion to Medicare. When Bush shifted gears and tried to privatize Social Security in 2005, his approval ratings plummeted. The lesson to many in the party was that entitlements were a third rail that zapped anyone who got too close.
Ryan’s 2010 plan, while still leaving some key areas blank, was a bracing challenge to that assumption. It privatized Medicare and significantly reduced benefits over time, raised the retirement age for Social Security and reduced benefits over time, and its tax portion eliminated capital gains taxes and further enriched the 1% while doing little for the middle class and poor.
That does seem big. How did it go over?
Republicans kept their distance from the plan during the midterms, but once the new majority took office in 2011 and Ryan became budget chair, the House lined up behind a new version.
Conservatives put enormous pressure on wavering Republicans to follow Ryan’s lead. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, no stranger to political fights over spending, derided Ryan’s ideas as “right wing social engineering” then reversed his position after a major backlash from all corners of the party. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist declared the next year that the only qualification the party’s next nominee needed was “enough working digits to handle a pen” and approve Ryan’s budget.
Democrats, on the other hand, saw Ryan’s painful cuts and tax breaks for the 1% as a political opportunity, especially after one of their candidates won an upset in a special election in New York while decrying it on the trail. During his re-election, President Obama pointed to studies estimating the average senior would eventually pay over $6,000 more for health care per year under Ryan’s plan. Ryan made some changes in subsequent budgets to soften the political edges – most notably giving seniors the option to enroll in traditional Medicare rather than private plans.
The debate came to a head in the 2012 election when Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, effectively aligning himself to the House GOP budget and recruiting its author to defend it. They lost, but it’s not clear Ryan’s presence on the ticket had much impact either way.
He sounds really conservative. What’s the tea party’s problem with him?
Ryan is indeed really conservative – like “Ayn Rand is ‘the reason I got involved in public service” conservative. He’s always had some lapses, though. He voted for both the auto bailout (the car industry is big in Wisconsin) and the bank bailout, both of which are loathed by the tea party.
Most importantly, though, the tea party has become increasingly defined over the years by its opposition to Republican leaders who cut deals to keep the government running and the financial system from collapsing. Ryan is the kind of Republican leader who cuts deals.
Ryan’s budgets may have been popular with the right, but they had no chance of becoming law so long as Obama was president. With Ryan’s support, Speaker Boehner worked out a fallback deal with President Obama to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 that cut spending by over $2 trillion over the next decade but fell short of some conservatives’ hopes. Ryan later negotiated a follow-up budget in 2013 with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray that undid some of the short-term cuts to defense and domestic spending, a move critics on the right did not like at all.
WATCH: Boehner: Ryan would do fine
The last three years opened up a major new rift with the right on immigration as well. Ryan is a strong believer in immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Conservative talk radio hosts, who led the charge to block bipartisan reform, have excoriated Ryan over his position in recent days.
One could argue Ryan also became a victim of his own success. It’s now assumed on the right that Republicans have to put forward major budget cuts, including to entitlements, to avoid the right’s wrath. Current Budget Chairman Tom Price proposed balancing the budget in 10 years using accounting magic, but also through trillions of dollars in cuts to social programs in line with Ryan’s budgets.
There are more esoteric issues as well. The House Freedom Caucus wants procedural changes that give rank-and-file members more power. Ryan wants them to surrender one of their biggest weapons, a rule that gives members the ability to oust a speaker in the middle of their term. Some conservative commentators fear Ryan would use the change entrench himself and then push through lawsthey despise – like immigration reform – without fear of reprisal. Ryan’s spokesman has told the conservative Free Beacon he would not to touch immigration while Obama was president.
Ryan’s hope is that his popularity with the rest of the party -- both among his colleagues and Republican voters -- and the lack of any other unifying candidates, will isolate the Freedom Caucus and force them to pledge fealty. If they don’t though, that’s okay. Ryan didn’t want the job in the first place.