When Paul Ryan was in college, which he paid for in part with the Social Security survivor's benefits his family received after his father's death, he discovered the powerful scriptures of free-market economists and became an eager disciple. As he recently joked on stage with the editor of National Review, "We've been dreaming of this" — this being scaling back the Medicaid program that provides health coverage to poor Americans — "since you and I were drinking out of kegs."
While every last dream of that frat boy with his dog-eared copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged may not be coming true, Ryan may now finally be contemplating a life outside the federal government, from whom he has drawn a paycheck for nearly his entire adult life. According to Tim Alberta and Rachael Bade of Politico, Ryan's eyes are set beyond the next hill:
Despite several landmark legislative wins this year, and a better-than-expected relationship with President Donald Trump, Ryan has made it known to some of his closest confidants that this will be his final term as speaker. He consults a small crew of family, friends, and staff for career advice, and is always cautious not to telegraph his political maneuvers. But the expectation of his impending departure has escaped the hushed confines of Ryan's inner circle and permeated the upper-most echelons of the GOP. In recent interviews with three dozen people who know the speaker — fellow lawmakers, congressional and administration aides, conservative intellectuals, and Republican lobbyists — not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018. [Politico]
And who can blame him? Once he becomes a lobbyist, Ryan may have to buy his own bank to store all the money grateful corporations will shower on him to represent their interests. And at only 47 years old, he'd be able to rake in that dough for decades to come.
After this report was published, Ryan's office delivered a sort-of-denial. "As the speaker himself said today, he's not going anywhere any time soon," said his spokesperson, though the end of 2018 could certainly qualify as beyond "soon."
But before he goes, he has one more job to do. Assuming the Republican tax bill passes and Ryan helps corporations and the wealthy finally get relief from the oppressive taxation which has made their existence such an unceasing nightmare, he will then be pushing to complete the circle of justice by ripping apart the safety net. "We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit," he said earlier this month. "Frankly, it's the health-care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt ... because that's really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking."
It takes a special kind of chutzpah to pass a tax bill, largely benefiting those at the top, that increases the debt by $1.5 trillion, then say that we have to cut health care because we have such a terrible debt problem. But no one who has followed Ryan's career is surprised. These have been his twin passions for his entire career: lowering taxes for the rich, and cutting benefits for the poor and middle class.
Along the way, Ryan managed to convince the Washington press corps that he's a hard-nosed policy savant whose expertise in matters budgetary is so profound that he probably sleeps in a green eyeshade. He has put out one budget document after another filled with magic asterisks, misleading statements, and trickle-down fairy dust; the numbers never added up, but the mere fact that there were tables and graphs made reporters draw back in awe at the majestic wonkery supposedly on display.
A closer look at those budget documents revealed what baloney they were; as Paul Krugman wrote back in 2010, "Mr. Ryan isn't offering fresh food for thought; he's serving up leftovers from the 1990s, drenched in flimflam sauce." The subsequent installments have been no more realistic.
But Ryan's image as a terribly serious wonk never suffered, and even his forgettable performance as Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012 — you almost forgot about it, didn't you? — did nothing to harm his standing among the media or his party, which practically begged him to become speaker of the House in 2015 when John Boehner had enough of dealing with the far-right lunatics of the GOP caucus.
Ryan has kept them mostly in check, in no small part because they know he shares their vision of a Randian utopia where those who have proven their superior virtue by accumulating lots of money exercise the freedom they so richly deserve, while the slovenly masses get nothing more from the government than a swift kick in the behind and a stern lecture on the importance of bootstrap-pulling. But as Republicans turn to the second half of their grand project, there may be trouble ahead.
That's because, as we all learned when the GOP tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, programs like Medicaid are exceedingly popular. All the years Ryan and others have spent insisting that social programs are an affront to the natural order and sap their recipients of precious spiritual fluids do not seem to have had their desired effect. And if he thought it was hard to eviscerate Medicaid, just wait until he tries privatizing — ahem, "reforming" — Medicare. When it comes to exercising their political power, the elderly don't mess around.
But even if his assault on the welfare state fails, Ryan will probably be able to leave office knowing that he accomplished at least half of his dream. As he walks to his office on K Street (or who knows, maybe even Wall Street), grateful plutocrats will stop him on the sidewalk to thank him for allowing their heirs to inherit millions tax-free, or for boosting their stock dividends, or for enabling them to reclassify themselves as pass-through entities and slash their tax bills. He'll look into their grateful faces and know what an impact he had on the world.
It may have taken a few years, and it required him to debase himself by becoming Trump's partner. But in the end, it was all worth it.