Outgoing U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan Jr. (R-Wisconsin) represents everything that is wrong with modern American politics.
Ryan is one of the most intelligent, ethical, thoughtful, capable, honorable, educated, and decent men ever to have served on Capitol Hill. Despite all that, Ryan has been spectacularly ineffective and he has had only one credible success in his three-year tenure as Speaker.
The failure of Ryan should trouble us because the Speaker exemplifies many of the characteristics of modern American politics. Ryan shares those characteristics with many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle; which explains why our politics are incredibly ineffective in an era of spectacular American achievements in other fields of endeavor such as technology, finance, entertainment, and business.
Why Ryan Failed
The character flaws that caused Ryan’s failure include:
- Aloof elitism. Ryan has been in the House for 20 years yet he refused to move his family to Washington DC. One gets the feeling that Ryan wants to do the work without getting his hands dirty.
This partially explains the success of politicians like President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). For all their faults Donald and Bernie are not afraid to get their hands dirty by jumping into the sleazy fray of day to politics. Ryan is afraid to do that.
- Extreme risk aversion. Despite all of his abilities, Ryan’s career is marked by a fear of Washington and politics in general.
His career is driven by risk aversion and being afraid to stick his neck out. Trump and Sanders succeed because they are huge risk takers. Trump was willing to move to Washington right after taking office and plans to educate his son there.
- Refusal to compromise. Ryan’s final flaw is his inability to compromise with his cherished ideals. He seems incapable of recognizing that Social Security and the welfare state are permanent aspects of American society that will not go away. This keeps him from offering any realistic alternatives. Nor is Ryan capable of even symbolic cooperation with Democrats or Republicans that do not share his beliefs.
Ryan’s tenure marks a radical departure from earlier highly effective Speakers; like Tip O’Neil (D-Massachusetts), that were willing to compromise and work with the other side. O’Neil’s greatest successes came from his partnership with a man with radically different values and views; President Ronald Reagan (R-California).
- Intellectual rigidity. At the end of the day, Ryan’s mind seems trapped in an intellectual straightjacket. For all his intelligence, the man cannot seem to grasp the reality that some of his beliefs; such as total faith in the free market do not work in the real world. Ryan simply cannot adapt to the possibility that Ayn Rand or Milton Freidman might have been wrong.
- Regional and class prejudice badly disguised as “principle.” The most damning statement one can make about Paul Davis Ryan Jr. is this: “The man was afraid to move his kids to Washington D.C. because they might be corrupted by the Eastern Liberal Establishment.”
At the end of the day, Ryan was incapable of overcoming the narrow-minded provincial bigotry of a small-town Midwestern schoolteacher or insurance broker. For all his intellect, Ryan cannot see the destructive regionalism that motivates some of his actions.
Paul Ryan is more like Hillary than You Think
Disturbingly, Ryan is not the only politician that shares these characteristics. His behavior reminds me of that of another prominent figure: Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York).
During the last Presidential election, Clinton refused to campaign in Wisconsin, and tried to sleep in her own bed in New York State every night. She lost to a man who was willing to campaign almost everywhere; and slept in an unlimited number of hotel rooms, Donald J. Trump.
Ryan’s failures prove we need a new attitude in politics. We need a new generation of politicians who are not afraid of Washington, and are willing to get their hands dirty. If we cannot find such individuals, our political system will be doomed to endless failure.