An unintentionally revealing interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan shows exactly why he’s being touted as an establishment replacement for Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, and also why Trump is the shocking frontrunner for the 2016 nomination.
Like some modern Marie Antoinette, Ryan seems to be utterly clueless about the state of the nation, and utterly condescending towards the voters he needs to keep his job, according to his answers in the interview with CNBC interviewer John Harwood.
But first, with some throat-clearing modesty, Ryan wants to distance himself from establishment calls that he should take the nomination from Donald Trump when the GOP’s delegates meet in July. “It’s funny, but I actually think you should run for President if you’re going to be President. I’m not running for President. I made that decision, consciously, not to,” said Ryan, after fortifying himself with a sip of Guinness stout. “I’m not thinking about it. I’m happy where I am, so no.”
Then he made clear that he’s going to fight Trump’s populist pitch. “I’m going to speak my mind. I’m going to defend conservatism as I understand it,” Ryan told Harwood. “I’m going to defend our ideas as the Republican Party. But we’re going to have to work with whoever the nominee is.”
Then he dived straight into self-delusion. Ryan claimed that his House caucus is making the maximum effort to get “input from their constituents” as they craft an agenda, which will come as a surprise to the huge number of Republican voters outraged by the embarrassing budget deal, which jubilant Democrats touted as an absolute triumph over the new Speaker.
It will also come as news to a Republican base under relentless attack by its own leadership over immigration, where Ryan still champions some of the most hated open-borders excesses, like the flood of H-2B visas that he invited via the omnibus 2016 spending bill. Trump’s romp through the primaries is nothing if not a wake-up call to the GOP leadership on immigration and guest-workers, yet they’re still slapping the snooze bar.
“Here in the House, you are from the people. You are grassroots. You’re elected every other year,” Ryan asserted. “And out of that come these solutions we’re going to take the country, and say, ‘Here is what we will do if you, our fellow citizens, will give us the ability to put it in place. Here’s how we get America out of the rut we are in.'”
The problem is that so many of the “solutions” Ryan is pushing have been decisively rejected by the grassroots. What the grassroots actually sees is representatives they work like crazy to elect, but whose positions shift dramatically once they’re snug inside the Beltway.
As for asking the public for the ability to put great conservative solutions in place, Ryan is playing with white-hot fire by trying that line on us. The major reason for the chaos of the 2016 primary is that Republican leaders asked the very question Ryan is framing, gained historic majorities from voters … and then gave us crap like the omnibus spending bill.
The long Republican game of ‘We’ll fight next time, pinky swear, we just need one more solid electoral victory to get past the Democrats’ has come to an end. The voters simply ran out of patience with it.
Ryan may complain about the bitter irony of that exasperation settling in, at the very moment a severely disappointing President was to be succeeded by a train-wreck candidate like Hillary Clinton, giving Republicans a great shot at finally securing the total control of Washington they claim they need to get anything done… but it’s the leadership’s fault they let their voters down again, one time too many, after making highly explicit promises of what they would do with a 2014 midterm election victory.
Besides, the GOP base has every reason to suspect their party leaders won’t do what they want, no matter how many seats they win.
When Harwood pointed out that voters really want Republicans to build an effective border wall, at long, long last, Ryan condescendingly cracked wise: “Remember, we’re not going to pay for that, recall? We think we should secure the border, that’s for sure. Exactly how we should secure the border? We should let the experts decide exactly where.”
So he’s joking about Trump’s assertion that he’ll make Mexico pay for the border wall? What a knee-slapper! We’ve only had laws on the books for decades requiring the construction of that border wall, dating all the way back to the Reagan-era amnesty swindle, and Republican leaders are still treating decent voters as if they are snotty kids who can be distracted by the promise of some lollipop.
Ryan grievously miscalculates the loss of faith Republican leaders have experienced with many of their voters. They’ve been hearing big talk about taskforces of experts devising brilliant methods of securing the border for most of their lives, while endless waves of illegal immigrants pour into the country… changing our political balance so completely that merely using words like “illegal alien” is taboo, much less making a serious effort to apprehend them.
The Beltway elite’s confident predictions of assimilation haven’t panned out — ask California Republicans — and neither have their promises that mass immigration would be a net economic asset to American voters, rather than depressing the wage base and making the unemployment problem worse. Even as the Republican party agonizes about the Trump campaign tearing it to pieces, leaders like Ryan give no sign of having learned a single lesson about what they did to alienate so many of their own voters since the 1980s. Trump, however, knows what GOP voters want.
Ryan doesn’t seem to have picked up the signals his base is sending about free trade, either. When Harwood noted “the message that Republican voters have been sending that they want something more from the Republican Party than simply freer markets and less government,” Ryan offered the usual bromides about the glories of the economy.
“We are in a global economy, whether we like it or not. And we believe, I believe, that America should be at the table, writing the rules of the global economy instead of China,” said the Speaker.
That sounds great… but we’re not writing the rules of the global economy, are we? Ryan went on to acknowledge that Trump’s core message is making good trade deals instead of bad ones, but he uses that to suggest that the voters’ choice is either Ryan’s policy or else “put up a wall and stop trading with the rest of the world.”
Well, no, nobody’s been saying that, or anything close to it — not even during the most heated Trump speech on tariffs. And Ryan’s portrayal of his opponents as fools shows his Obama-level contempt for voters. The populist skepticism of conventional free-trade wisdom is more nuanced than that.
It’s another example of faith running thin, really. People have been told how wonderful all these trade deals will be for America, but the world outside their window doesn’t live up to the promises — particularly at what many of them perceive as a point of equilibrium between low consumer prices due to free trade, and jobs lost to that “global economy.” To put it bluntly, the lower-prices argument is losing its appeal to people who worry they, or their children, could be under-employed for life.
Harwood asked Ryan about entitlement reform, where he has taken a great deal of heat for Social Security and Medicare reform proposals, while Trump has insisted on keeping nearly all benefits at current levels. (By “taken a great deal of heat” for his proposals, I mean Ryan was depicted as a murderous villain who enjoyed throwing old people off cliffs in left-wing propaganda.)
“I believe that if we do not prevent Medicare from going bankrupt, it will go bankrupt,” Ryan told Harwood. “And that will be bad for everybody. We have to tackle our debt crisis. We have to tackle the drivers of our debt. And I think, I hope, that whoever our standard bearer’s going to be will acknowledge that.”
This is a difficult subject, but one of Ryan’s strongest on the merits — the looming bankruptcy of entitlement programs is a matter of actuarial fact. He isn’t responsible for creating those Ponzi schemes, and he’s right about their inevitable fate.
The problem is that nowhere would voter trust be more crucial than in reforming entitlement programs, which remain a fairly high-voltage third rail in politics. The harsh populist response to reform proposals is that if Big Government wasn’t busy giving away the store to other constituencies, and enacting laws that weakened our economy, we’d have enough money to keep Social Security and Medicare going for longer — especially if politicians hadn’t devised a scheme to raid the funds for other purposes long ago.
Older people do feel strongly entitled to these benefits, especially Social Security, which they perceive as a benefit they “paid for,” and therefore “own.” (They’re dead wrong, as Barack Obama tried to explain to them, when threatening to cut off their benefit checks during his disgusting Shutdown Theater spectacle, but it’s a belief that dies hard.)
“I think for younger people like myself, they’re not going to be there for my generation when we retire. You have to change these benefits to prevent them from going bankrupt,” said Ryan, putting a finger on one of the most profound demographic shifts in politics to come along since the Baby Boom. Actually, it’s the direct aftermath of the Baby Boom.
The trick is getting to the people who live somewhere between older voters who demand every penny of their Social Security benefits (and who tend to be much more energetic voters) and the younger generation which cynically, and accurately, sees SocSec as purely a tax forcing them to fund benefit programs they’ll never benefit from.
To make such an argument, you need trust, and lots of it. The Republican leadership squandered that trust over many long years, leading a crucial mass of their voters to suspect the GOP leadership is either in cahoots with the Democrat-dominated Washington establishment they pretend to oppose… or is effectively helpless to oppose it, having blown so many moments of political strength in the past.
There’s a “Wall Street versus Main Street” schism running through both parties at the moment, but the Democrat leadership is strong and ruthless enough to seal theirs up. Also, their Establishment narrative has populist overtones — they’re always presenting themselves as the enemies of capitalist greed, vowing to make the Evil Rich pay their Fair Share so the Little Guy can get the benefits he deserves. The fact that the Evil Rich are actually busy writing $300,000 checks to Hillary Clinton for vacuous speeches makes little impact on this narrative, as Bernie Sanders can tell you, to his chagrin.
Paul Ryan is a brilliant man with a lot of good ideas, but his bad ones have so thoroughly distanced him from the Republican base that he can barely hear what they’re saying. If he had a good answer to Trump’s populist surge, his colleagues wouldn’t currently be laying plans to dynamite the Republican Party into rubble after Trump completes his hostile takeover.