The formal announcement of Paul Ryan's retirement from the House speakership is as good a time as any to take stock of his achievements, such as they are.
Context matters here. It is fair to say that pitted against his two immediate Republican predecessors in the lower chamber, Ryan comes off slightly better than the pedophile wrestling coach and slightly worse than the weepy chain smoker now serving on the advisory board of a marijuana corporation. Unlike Denny Hastert, Ryan never torpedoed the House Ethics Committee after they found one of his allies guilty of a wide array of ludicrously over-the-top crimes; unlike Boehner, who seemed to regard the passing of meaningful legislation as a boring task beneath the dignity of an aesthete, Ryan really loves doing things.
The life and career of Paul Davis Ryan, Jr., are a painful synecdoche of everything millions of ordinary working-class Americans loathe about the GOP. From earliest age he seems to have been one of those insufferable try-hards who is never satisfied unless he is being elected class president and prom king while playing at least four sports — skiing, track, basketball, and, naturally, soccer — and doing Model U.N. and working a summer job and volunteering and hiking and representing the student body on the school board. In college he haunted the offices of his professors to ask clever and thoughtful questions about the reading. He joined a fraternity and the College Republicans and worked for political campaigns. Everything he has done in public life has been premised on the assumption that this frenetic omnidirectional obsession with activity is normal human behavior and that its absence is a moral failing that can and should carry economic penalties.
After graduating, this vocal opponent of political careerism went immediately to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a legislative aide and speechwriter to the late Sen. Jack Kemp and other right-wing luminaries. Later he had a spell in Kansas as legislative director to then-Rep. Sam Brownback before returning to Wisconsin to do consulting work for a marketing firm owned by relations. Finally in 1999 he was elected in his home state's first district as the nation's second youngest member of Congress.
No one should be surprised to learn that Ryan is obsessed with health and physical fitness. He is particularly enthusiastic about a training program called "P90X," which sounds like the name of a Khrushchev-era Soviet mind-control experiment. He loathes tobacco and has been known to whine to any journalist willing to listen to him about this very boring subject. When he inherited the office of his predecessor, he rented a bizarre "ozone" machine at considerable offense to exorcise the hideous spirit of that demon weed. Everything about Ryan screams that he is the guy who would rat you out for smoking behind the gas station or tell Mrs. Stefinitch that you hid your can of chew in the library behind the encyclopedias.
Beneath the politely smarmy exterior — even his enemies will insist that he is very nice — there is a solid core of viciousness and stupidity in Ryan. It is grimly amusing that a man who flies weekly from Washington to his home town in order to participate in various suburban activities with his children could dismiss paid maternity leave as an expensive plot. It is astonishing that a Christian could find anything of value in the writings of Ayn Rand, an atheist who considered charity not just counterproductive but immoral. It is ludicrous that anyone who considers himself a serious student of political economy could restrict his attention to the crude monomania of Ludwig von Mises and the so-called "Austrian school." It is grotesque that a politician who has devoted decades of his life to the cause of phasing out Social Security — from which he benefited after the tragic death of his father when he was 16 — and Medicare on the grounds of expense could support a tax cut package that will starve the treasury of an estimated $1.5 trillion, much less regard it as the signature achievement of his dubious tenure as the leader of a party.
Which brings us to what he has accomplished after nearly 20 years in office. In many ways Ryan has been a typical Republican of his era: a supporter of the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts, an opponent of the estate tax, in favor of bailing out major financial corporations but roundly opposed to welfare, food stamps, Pell Grants, and Medicaid. Many of his dreams — the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the privatization of Social Security — remain, alas, unrealized. Still at a press conference on Wednesday morning, Ryan volunteered his own assessment that he has achieved "a heck of a lot."
This is probably true, but it is not necessarily as positive a verdict as he thinks it is.