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Paul Ryan Faces the Fire

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Watching Paul Ryan deliver his high-minded, optimistic call to a better politics on Wednesday, I kept thinking of Marco Rubio. How long ago was it that Rubio, like Ryan, was a bright young conservative talent with nothing but smooth road ahead?

As I recall, Rubio was at one time the nation's first Hispanic president-in-waiting, the legislative craftsman who fashioned comprehensive immigration reform before everything went south. Running for president, Rubio confronted the night furies and daylight delusions of Republican madness, and they devoured him. By the time his political corpse was discovered by the roadside, he had been reduced to "Little Marco," a sweaty, small-time operator from Miami trafficking in crude jokes.

Ryan may be shrewder than Rubio, which should help, and more principled, which almost certainly won't. Both loyally represent the donor wing, but Ryan appears to have a firmer foundation in the party. Indeed, since the dawn of the Obama era, Ryan's foundation has been a pedestal, upon which he has towered over party regulars.

Since being nominated for vice president in 2012, Ryan simultaneously has occupied the roles of bright young comer and party elder, policy whiz and political sage. When Donald Trump absent-mindedly neglected to renounce the support of an organization infamous for a century-long rampage of white supremacist violence, Ryan put Trump, who's old enough to be Ryan's father, on notice. “I hope this is the last time I need to speak out on this race,” Ryan told reporters.

Bright, charismatic, handsome, articulate and seemingly beyond reproach in his ethics and personal life, Ryan is in serious danger. Having accepted the speakership under shaky circumstances, he is leader of a House conference riven by faction with little hope of achieving its key goals. His party, caught between the cruel mockery of Donald Trump and the cold cynicism of Ted Cruz, is on the verge of bursting into flames. Ryan's signature policy cocktail, a double helping of champagne for the rich and a spent lemon for the poor, appears increasingly ludicrous in a country vexed by economic insecurity and inequality and riding multiple waves of populism.

At this seemingly inauspicious career moment, the Speaker yesterday asked the nation to raise its gaze.

“When people distrust politics, they come to distrust institutions," he said. "They lose faith in their government and the future too. We can acknowledge this. But we can’t accept it. And we can’t enable it either.”

Ryan leads a party that has spent the past four decades working diligently to discredit first the Supreme Court, then Congress and the presidency. The court was not a hall of justice, according to a long, vitriolic war waged by Republicans, but a Tammany Hall of liberal "judicial activism" that deliberately defiled the constitution. The character of Congress was "corrupt," according to the renowned ethicist Newt Gingrich, who began dismantling the institution in earnest in 1995. And the deliberations of that legislature, culminating in the black night of Obamacare and its "death panels" in 2010, were nothing short of criminal. The presidency, first of Bill Clinton, later of Barack Obama, was illegitimate when a Democrat occupied the White House.

Yes, the left howled when the Supreme Court voted to make George W. Bush president. But Al Gore and the Democratic establishment accepted the dubious outcome. The only equivalence between Republican and Democratic assaults on governing legitimacy is a false one. Does Ryan recall Ronald Reagan's oft-repeated knee-slapper, the one about the "nine most terrifying words" in the English language? "I'm from the government and I'm here to help," Reagan chuckled.

Ryan can't be oblivious to his party's ferocious crusade to destroy faith in government. Just as he can't have missed that the current contest under way for the GOP presidential nomination is almost devoid of his trademark "ideas." The main combatants consist of two politicians who glory in the destruction of governing norms, one of whom is a comprehensive ignoramus. Having destabilized government, conservatives are now blasting the foundations of the Republican Party.

Ryan's path out of this rubble is unclear. That his policies are going nowhere may be his greatest blessing. He deserves credit for grappling with the realities of poverty more seriously than other Republicans. But after years as the Republican Einstein, his donor-friendly ideas remain blissfully untested in the marketplace, and even Ryan can't defy gravity forever.

As his party descends, he'll need a way to keep his ambition afloat above the destruction. His agenda, the opposite of populism, has been nullified by the 2016 election, as it was by the elections of 2012 and 2008. This time, death should be permanent.

Yesterday, Ryan invoked our better angels, establishing a sharp character contrast with Cruz and Trump, neither of whom could've delivered a similarly elevated speech. To move forward, whether at a contested convention in July or, more likely, in a subsequent presidential campaign, Ryan will need to deftly alter his agenda without appearing to abandon his principles, and without losing his base of support in the party. It's going to take skill and luck to survive the Republican conflagration. Ask Rubio.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net