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Paul Ryan is the wrong messenger to condemn political 'tribalism'

Paul Ryan may pretend to be disappointed by hysterical demagoguery, but the Congressional Leadership Fund's ads tell a different story.
Image: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Towards the end of his remarks at the National Press Club yesterday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) condemned a single-payer health care system as a "singularly bad idea."

The retiring GOP leader added, "It all brings to mind what Margaret Thatcher once described as the problem with socialism: 'Eventually, you run out of other people's money.' And it just shows how today's Democratic Party has gone further left to the fringes, and further back to discredited ideas."

It was an odd remark for an ostensible policy wonk. Single-payer isn't socialism; the U.K. doesn't have a single-payer system; and Thatcher's health care policy is further to the left of anything Republicans or Democrats have proposed.

While we're at it, single-payer isn't a "fringe" idea -- it exists throughout much of the Western world and polls suggest most Americans like the model -- and it hasn't been "discredited."

Soon after, at the same event, Ryan turned his attention to the forces that are driving "tribalism and identity politics." Mother Jones  noted:

House Speaker Paul Ryan lamented the increasingly personal tone of American politics at a National Press Club event Monday. "I worry about this a lot," he said. "The incentive in politics is invective; it's outrage; it's hysteria."He ought to know. Ryan's super-PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has spent the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections churning out attack ads -- some featuring barely disguised racism -- that rely on those exact ingredients.

Quite right. As much as the House Speaker wants to be seen as above the petty "hysteria" that drives too much of contemporary politics, the fact remains that Ryan's association with "invective" tactics is hard to ignore.

This isn't necessarily new. The Wisconsin congressman, whose career on Capitol Hill has spanned nearly two decades, has long been one of the House's most bitter partisans. Indeed, Ryan's rise to power has been fueled by "invective" and "outrage: he's not only condemned Social Security as "a collectivist system," he blasted Social Security's Democratic champions as "collectivist, class warfare-breathing demagogues."

Ryan also famously divided the public into what he saw as two camps: "makers" and "takers."

But we don't necessarily have to look to the past to appreciate the hypocrisy of the message Ryan pushed yesterday. We need only to turn on our televisions in swing districts. As Politico  reported:

Democratic House candidate Jason Crow received a Bronze Star for heroism in Iraq and a "lawyer of the year" award for his veterans advocacy. But according to his GOP adversaries, he has "neglected" Colorado veterans.Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger spent nearly a decade fighting terrorists as an undercover CIA officer. But to hear Republicans tell it, she harbors terrorist sympathies.Attacks ads have always been a staple of campaign season. But Republicans have twisted facts in some ads to an extraordinary degree as they fight to save their House majority, weaving narratives about Democratic candidates that are misleading at best — or blatantly false at worst.In several ads, military vets -- who count as some of Democrats' best recruits to defeat sitting Republicans this year -- have had their patriotism called into question. One spot insinuates that Spanberger, who is challenging Rep. Dave Brat's (R-Va.), has ties to extremists because she taught at a Saudi Arabian-funded Muslim school where two infamous terrorists once attended. The CIA not only knew about the job, but later hired Spanberger and employed her for eight years.

Much of the ugly attack ads have been created by a Republican super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund, which -- you guessed it -- is closely affiliated with Paul Ryan's House Republican leadership.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, taking stock of the Congressional Leadership Fund's messaging, wrote a column last month asking, "So this is how retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan wishes to leave public service: with lies, name-calling and racism?"

The answer, it turns out, is maybe. Ryan may prefer to leave public service while pretending to be disappointed by tribalism and hysterical demagoguery, but the Congressional Leadership Fund's ads tell us a great deal about what the House Speaker is prepared to tolerate in the name of victory.