Ah, yes, time for another round of “what is mysteriously causing serious green-eyeshaded deficit-hating policy wonk Paul Ryan to act like a Republican hack concerned solely with redistribution to the upper class?”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a fierce believer in America as a land of immigrants, recently attended a dinner party with a so-called Dreamer. When she pleaded with him to help young undocumented immigrants like herself gain legal status, he hesitated — the House, he said, would pass only legislation that President Trump would sign.
He again held back last month after the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee confronted him over their conclusion that Republican aides on the House Intelligence Committee had leaked the private text messages of a senior senator to Fox News. The senators asked for no specific action, and Mr. Ryan offered none.
But when Mr. Trump challenged Republican free-trade orthodoxy, Mr. Ryan — a fervent advocate of trade accords for decades — had to respond, albeit four days later and through his press secretary. The speaker, his spokeswoman said, was “extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war” that could be sparked by the president’s steel and aluminum tariffs.
On one contentious issue after another — the investigation of Russian interference in American elections, trade, immigration and gun control — a speaker who rose to prominence as an outspoken, almost brash leader, determined to bring his party along with his vision of governance, has receded. Instead, he wields his gavel gingerly.
Even on one of his signature issues, free trade, he has mostly worked behind the scenes to change the president’s mind.
“I think Ryan’s expectations had to be dramatically reduced when Trump became president,” said Peter Wehner, a onetime adviser to former President George W. Bush who is close to the speaker. “I think in a lot of ways he was forced into a defensive posture rather than an offensive posture.”
To supporters like Mr. Wehner, Mr. Ryan’s approach is pure pragmatism and smart politics. Facing a divided Republican conference and a mercurial president of his party, they say, he has little choice but to curb some of his own instincts, work behind the scenes and steer Mr. Trump gently. He also must guide House Republicans into a very difficult midterm election campaign, where his main job is to ensure that vulnerable members get re-elected. And those close to Mr. Ryan note that, with the exception of trade, he has not had serious policy disagreements with the president.
“Forced.” Obvious follow-up: “by what or who and how?”
The thing is that there’s no puzzle to be explained here; Paul Ryan is acting like he always has and always will:
While many public figures are complex, dynamic, and riven by cross-pressures, Paul Ryan is simple to understand. He was inculcated at a young age with the works of theorists like Ayn Rand, George Gilder, and Jude Wanniski, all of whom share a belief that the core mission of political life is to protect the earned wealth of the rich from political redistribution by the masses. Cutting taxes for the wealthy is not some minor pecuniary errand to Ryan but a defense of liberty and a moral calling of the highest order.
The main oddity of Ryan’s career is how poorly he is understood, despite the simplicity of the task. Reporters spent the Obama era expecting him to support a bipartisan grand compromise that would reduce the deficit. They have spent the Trump era wondering why he hasn’t rebelled against the president. The straightforward explanation, that he is acting on the basis of his anti-tax principles, has proven oddly elusive.
Little choice? Must? Of course Ryan has a choice. He has a wide array of options to express his opposition to Trump, if he indeed felt such a calling. He could allow a vote to release Trump’s tax returns. He could have heeded the requests of Senate Republicans or Department of Justice professionals to call off the absurd partisan counter-investigation Devin Nunes is running in his chamber. He could even risk resigning, given the widespread belief that Ryan has no plans to continue his public career past this term. But Ryan doesn’t do those things because he is motivated primarily by low taxes for the rich.
Well, Republican sharks can’t retain their unearned reputation as Men of Seriousity and Principle without a lot of flounders in the political press.