"Well, I'll certainly try. The point I'd say is, this is not the Democratic Party of the mid-1990s.... This is the liberal progressive party of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and, yes, Hillary Clinton. "I think Hillary Clinton is a very liberal progressive. They have moved far, far, far to the left. And so in the 1990s, there was a little more overlap between the two parties and more room for common ground."
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) participated in a town-hall forum last night, and CNN's Jake Tapper asked a good question: is Ryan prepared to work with a President Hillary Clinton, should she win in November? Here's his response:
This is the sort of assessment that many Beltway pundits will probably like, because it reinforces the agreed-upon narrative that both parties are always to blame for all things, even when that doesn't make any sense. Sure, the argument goes, Republicans are more conservative, but Democrats have moved "far, far, far to the left." If only today's Dems were more like '90s-era Dems, just imagine the wonderful bipartisan compromises we'd see!
If this reflected reality, it might even serve as the foundation for meaningful political change.
Ryan's comments are interesting for all sorts of reasons, so let's unpack this a bit.
1. If we had a time machine, '90s-era Republicans would find this hilarious. Paul Ryan didn't take office in Congress until 1999, so he may not realize this, but in the mid-1990s, Republicans were convinced that Democrats of the day were far-left radicals, led by a lawless president GOP lawmakers felt compelled to impeach.
To look back at the politics of 20 years ago as an era of bipartisan "overlap" and "common ground" is kind of hilarious to anyone familiar with the politics of 20 years ago.
2. Democrats have not moved "far, far, far to the left." President Obama set out to set the nation on a more progressive course, changing the trajectory of the broader debate, and he's had some success. What's more, Paul Ryan isn't wrong that Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton are helping guide the party's progressive priorities.
But there's overwhelming polling evidence that suggests Democratic policy measures are very much in line with mainstream American attitudes across the policy spectrum, and as a quantifiable matter, Democratic ideology has been fairly steady for decades.
3. Republicans have moved far, far, far to the right. The House Speaker didn't mention it -- because he may not be fully aware of it -- but the radicalization of Republican politics has been the most significant American political development in at least a generation. Paul 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 fall 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.”
4. Paul Ryan is a poor arbiter of the American mainstream. In August 2012, right around the time Mitt Romney chose the Wisconsin congressman as his running mate, Nate Silver published an item highlighting the congressman's ideology: "Based on his Congressional voting record, [Paul Ryan is] roughly as conservative as Representative Michele Bachmann."
Much of the political establishment finds it difficult to look past the hype and p.r. persona, but as regular readers know, Paul Ryan has been one of Congress’ bitter partisans. Though he’s known for his focus on fiscal issues, Ryan is also a fierce culture warrior, taking a hard-right line on contraception access, “Personhood,” and LGBT rights, twice supporting a constitutional amendment to block marriage equality. At one point, Ryan even worked with Todd Akin to redefine “rape.”
The scope of Ryan’s conservatism is practically endless. He’s a climate denier. He has an unhealthy preoccupation with tax breaks for the wealthy. He’s credited Ayn Rand as “the reason I got involved in public service.”
Ryan not only condemned Social Security as “a collectivist system,” he blasted Social Security’s Democratic champions as “collectivist, class warfare-breathing demagogues.”
And then, of course, there’s the infamous Paul Ryan budget plan – in all of its various iterations – which would not only end Medicare, converting the program into a voucher system, but which goes out of its way to redistribute wealth from the bottom up.
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.