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Paul Ryan Is Not A Sellout Or Tragic Figure

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While I don’t really agree with the “Trump sold out to Ryan” angle — there was never any reason to believe that Trump cared about his campaign heterodoxies, he ran on big tax cuts, and for the most part his healthcare lies were no different than the rest of the Republican leadership’s — it’s 100% right that Ryan didn’t “sell out” to Trump but rather used Trump to advance his interests:

I’m not a big Paul Ryan fan, but one particular kick in the pants the speaker of the House is getting on his way out the door is unfair. It’s simply not the case that he sold out to Donald Trump or compromised his principles in any way. If anything, it’s just the opposite — Trump abandoned his stated views on a wide range of policy issues in order to bring himself into close conformity with Ryan’s ideology and policy agenda.

Writers sending off Ryan, like Tim Alberta at Politico and Josh Barro at Business Insider, argue that the speaker’s career has had a tragic arc in which, in Albert’s words, “the battle for the GOP’s heart and soul is finished,” with Trump the victor and Ryan the loser.

The reality is the opposite. On substance, Trump has embraced Ryan’s vision of lower taxes on the rich and a stingier welfare state, even though he campaigned promising the opposite. Ryan has indulged Trump on a personal level without abandoning any of his longstanding policy views. It’s true that Ryan has had limited success in enacting his agenda, but the impediments there have uniformly been in the United States Senate, not the White House. If anything, the Trump administration is quite loyally plugging away at Ryan-esque goals that the president never articulated as a candidate.

But while it’s unquestionably true that the self-presentation of the GOP in 2018 and beyond looks a lot more like what Trump was doing in 2015 than what Ryan was up to three years ago, the policy agenda of the GOP hews much closer to Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” blueprint than to anything Trump said as a candidate.

The critique now, ironically, is rooted in the same style-over-substance pathologies that led so many journalists to overrate Ryan for so long — an inclination Ryan was shrewd to exploit. He is a substance guy who, as he told the Atlas Society in 2005, got into public life because of the inspiration he drew from Ayn Rand and who believes that “almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill … usually comes down to one conflict: individualism vs. collectivism.” He’s never sold out on those core views and instead got Trump to swing over to his side on many key topics.

The other thing to add is that it’s odd to accuse a Ayn Rand devotee of “selling out” by showing contempt for democratic norms. The contempt that Ryan showed for democratic norms (with the passage of the AHCA being exhibit A) is also perfectly consistent with his worldview.

This is becoming a recurring theme around here, but the deeply misguided idea that bad behavior is always ultimately explained by venality or spinelessness is what causes people to miss the boat on figures like Ryan. A lot of bad stuff is done by people sincerely committed to principles, and acting on principle is not better or worse than the underlying principle is. The media who refuse to believe that Ryan meant to do what he did is like the voters in focus groups who refuse to believe Ryan’s agenda could possibly be his agenda. Sometimes people are, in fact, what they say they are, even when what they say they are is horrible. And while, granted, Ryan started lying a lot in selling his agenda — taking advantage of the elite media’s fetish about deficits and coding of conservatives as deficit-averse irrespective of the facts — the agenda was always the same.

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