Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan lost this summer, and he wasn’t even in a race. Ryan may not have been on primary and caucus ballots, but the anger that voters conveyed was intended for him and his agenda just as much as it was aimed at the establishment candidates who went down along the way. By voting to give the GOP presidential nomination to a certain Apprentice host, voters soundly rejected Bush Republicanism—or what Ryan calls “the principles of our party.”
That party has defined nearly all of Ryan’s life. Ryan, 46, grew up Catholic in Janesville, Wisconsin, where he flipped hamburgers at McDonald’s during summer breaks. After college, he took his aw-shucks persona to Capitol Hill, where he worked as a staffer for Republican politicians and immersed himself in GOP economic dogma.
But Ryan’s origin story really begins with his part-time job waiting tables at Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex cantina across the street from the Republican National Committee. One night, he served former GOP congressman Jack Kemp of New York; it was love at first sight. Once a star quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, Kemp parlayed his gridiron success into a seat in Congress, where he made a name for himself in the 1970s by championing tax cuts, promoting hawkish internationalism and reaching out to minorities. In the 1980s and 1990s, he tried and failed to become president and then vice president.
Ryan found a mentor in Kemp, who encouraged his protégé to follow his footsteps into Congress—even if Kemp was an unusual model for an ambitious politician. “Jack was always a day late and a dollar short,” says Bruce Bartlett, who worked for Kemp as staff economist. “But he had an enormous amount of intellectual influence.”
In 1998, Ryan was elected and became the second-youngest member of the House. The neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine branded him as one of the “young guns” of Capitol Hill who would lead the GOP into the future. He went on to chair the House Committee on the Budget, and in 2012 Mitt Romney selected Ryan to be his vice presidential running mate—“an intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” as Romney called him. Yet their ticket couldn’t even carry Ryan’s home district and generated just one percent more votes nationwide in 2012 than John McCain and Sarah Palin did in 2008.
Still, Ryan managed to land on his feet back in Congress, and last fall when House Republicans were desperate for a new leader, they chose him as Speaker. Once again, Ryan was hailed as the savior of conservative “ideas and principles.”
Then 2016 happened. After hearing Trump, conservative voters asked themselves what was “conservative” about GOP-backed trade policies that have closed more than 50,000 factories in the U.S. since 2000. Why should they continue to support the globalist agenda, advocated by Ryan and other Republicans, that moves jobs once held by Americans offshore? In state after state, they voted to stop it.
“Republicans lose personality contests, but we win ideas contests.” That was how Ryan rationalized the defeat of the Romney-Ryan ticket, a line he repeated even as Trump racked up victories. Instead, voters looked at Ryan’s ideas, as repackaged by Jeb Bush and other Trump opponents, and said no thanks.
“Those were policies that were right in 1980,” says Bartlett, who helped draft Kemp’s tax-cut bill that Ronald Reagan signed into law as president in 1981. “Circumstances have changed, and Ryan and other Republicans are still echoing the same old tired philosophy.”
That hasn’t stopped Ryan from pledging to ride these ideas into the Republican National Convention and the fall campaign. A preview came in March, during the heat of the primaries, when Ryan’s office announced he would deliver a big, bold speech about the “state of American politics.” Instead, he rebuked Trump’s rhetoric without naming him and employed such generic bromides as “My dad used to say, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,’ ” and “Personalities come and go, but principles endure.” The audience of interns sat expressionless, some playing with their iPhones. “The big speech landed with a big thud,” concluded The Washington Post’s Daily 202 newsletter.
Ryan’s office tried again in April, this time promoting a “millennial town hall” with him at Georgetown, arranged by CNN’s conservative commentator S.E. Cupp. The appearance generated barely 7,000 views on YouTube.
But Ryan loyalists are a determined bunch, praying that the Donald will be defeated so they can launch a “Paul Ryan for President 2020” campaign. Before Ryan lets them get too far, he may want to take Reagan’s test for success in national politics and ask himself if he can answer yes to these two questions: Are you saying something different from what everyone else is saying? And is anyone listening?