Paul Ryan has really screwed his own party. In the 48 hours or so since the Speaker’s sudden retirement announcement, Republicans find themselves in even greater jeopardy of losing their House majority in November, and pundits on the right and left are painting Ryan as one of three things: a weakling, a fraud or a sucker. All three may be true, and the portrait of the Speaker’s career would still be incomplete. There is no divorcing Ryan’s fervor for cutting the social safety net, for example, from the people whom his policies disproportionately benefit, and those they hurt the most.
Inevitably, with Ryan, the group that’s better off tends to be straight white men. Amidst the career obituaries that mainly note Ryan’s fiscal recklessness and his meek submission to President Trump, it is worth remembering his efforts to uphold white supremacy and institutional sexism.
Ryan would no doubt call such an observation divisive. First, Ryan might be inclined to list the quotes he has given opposing bigotry, including when he labeled Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel as “textbook racism.” He might even bring up his sorry excuse for a reaction to Charlottesville as a positive. His cynical employment of identity politics – that too-academic term that describes how certain groups advocate for interests and goals particular to people who identify as they do – is all too apparent. Ryan has frequently dismissed identity politics as a non-unifying force. In an interview last October on CBS, he said, “Identity politics has gotten out of control in our country,”– and though white supremacy is a particularly bad form of it, Ryan said the identity game is “being played on the left and on the right.”
Ryan expanded that critique this week after announcing his retirement. “I’m an old Jack Kemp guy that believes strongly in inclusive, aspirational politics that are based on bringing people together and not exploiting divisions,” Ryan said in an interview with Politico. “With identity politics being played all around and 21st-century technology accelerating it, and putting gas on the fire – that is my big concern of politics these days. And that makes it harder to have political goodwill in this country because of all this polarization.” Later, after once again defending our overt bigot of a president, Ryan added, “If you can deny the oxygen of identity politics, the best way to do that is to have a faster growing economy, more upward mobility, higher wages, getting people from poverty into the workforce.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but Ryan is acting cowardly, which is unsurprising. Rather than push for real change, the Speaker is known to instead opt for mere symbolism. He doesn’t advocate for closing the gender pay gap, nor does he follow the lead of his mentor Jack Kemp in pushing his party to produce policies that remedy racial discrimination in housing, education or public works. Even now, at the end of his Congressional tenure, Ryan is more comfortable laying the blame for poverty and economic stagnation at the feet of those advocating for those disproportionately hurt by ideas like his own. Ryan is following a familiar Republican script: use identity politics as a scapegoat while employing them himself, putting forth a platform of built-in advantages for the only true GOP constituency, wealthy white men. Ryan and conservatives like him enjoy moving the goal posts in this debate, and their effort to delete identity from either the cause or the effect of their own policies remains a convenient lie.
Not even Kemp, the late Congressman and Housing and Urban Development Secretary under George H. W. Bush, was immune. Known for pushing the GOP to be more culturally inclusive in its membership and its policies, Kemp tossed aside his support for affirmative action when he joined Bob Dole’s ill-fated presidential ticket in 1996. He also championed supply-side economics and tax cuts that not only failed the economy generally, but contributed to a rise in economic inequality. Ryan’s political philosophy takes that approach to the extreme. Though we’d been warned long ago, we learned this week that Ryan’s prized tax cuts have now set the nation speeding towards a $1 trillion deficit by 2020. All the while, the least fortunate – disproportionately black and brown Americans – will suffer more while the mostly white, rich enjoy the spoils.
I haven’t even mentioned his quixotic efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. According to the Kaiser Foundation, people of color (who are more likely than white people to be uninsured) have had larger gains in coverage compared to their white counterparts since implementation of the ACA, helping to narrow racial and ethnic disparities in coverage. Ryan cannot claim that identity is somehow divorced from his efforts to kill Obamacare, or the increased inequalities that would have come had he succeeded.
Ryan’s platform hasn’t just slighted people of color. His budget proposals through the years could rightfully be called punitive to women. In 2011, American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson deemed Ryan’s economic blueprint “a road map, in fact, for national decline,” citing its sharp cuts to government health programs that primarily benefit women. Two years later, fresh off losing the presidential election on Mitt Romney’s ticket, the anti-choice Ryan was the chair of the House Budget Committee, and he was trying to cut Medicaid again. (And once again in 2014.) Then and now, most Medicaid recipients are female, by a considerable margin. Women are also more likely to need Medicare, as well as nutrition assistance and other public programs Ryan wanted to slash with abandon. Federal assistance to Planned Parenthood has long been one of his targets.
He might argue that cutting “entitlements” has nothing to do with gender or race. If only the good wishes of men like Ryan were enough to counter some of their worst deeds, perhaps that would be enough. It is no wonder that upon learning of his retirement, the reproductive rights organization NARAL Pro-Choice America tweeted that it was “The first positive thing for women Paul Ryan has done in his 19 years in office.” EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock wrote “Good riddance” to Ryan, who “loved nothing more than pushing viciously anti-woman budgets that slashed women’s access to health care, gutted assistance to low-income families, and dismantled Medicare.”
It should be noted Ryan is no Steve King, the Iowa Congressman who openly and regularly shares his racist views. Nor is he Paul Nehlen, the openly “pro-white” bigot who is running to replace Ryan in his district. There has really only been one news cycle when we openly wondered if Ryan was racist, which feels low for a Republican nowadays. During a 2014 radio interview in his home state of Wisconsin, Ryan mused over “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Whether or not he intended to use coded language echoing stereotypes about poor “inner city” people, it was incorrect either way. We debated then whether he was racist because of something he said, all without much considering the racism of the policies that remained once that died down. I don’t care what Ryan claims is in his heart. The long term effects of his draconian policy platform, along with the obvious zeal with which he pursued said policy, will stain his legacy long after he’s gone.
The night that he announced his retirement, Ryan went to dinner at the White House with top Republican leaders, all white men. They thought it would be a great idea to pose for a “thumbs up” photo together. CBS host Gayle King, a black woman, interviewed Ryan the next morning and let her know how she saw it. “You know, when I look at that picture, Mr. Speaker, I have to say, I don’t see anybody who looks like me in terms of color and gender,” King said. “You are one of the main people who said you want to do more for the Republican party. You wanted to expand the base … so when I look at that picture … I don’t feel very celebratory. I feel excluded.”
Ryan responded that he didn’t like that King felt that way, saying, “We need more minorities, more women in our party.” He cited Congresswoman Mia Love of Utah as one of his personal recruitment stories, which only served to underscore how pathetic the party’s record on diversity has been. But this isn’t about getting more faces in a photo. Ryan had a real chance to further and improve upon his mentor Kemp’s vision for an inclusive GOP, more in terms of policy than pure physical representation. He chose to do the opposite. He said Trump’s brand of politics had “no place in our party,” then proceeded to endorse and carry out his agenda. He acknowledged Trump’s racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, then he stood for that photo next to the president. Thumbs up.
Ryan didn’t just give into Trump. His policy agenda has made him even more dangerous. So rather than painting Ryan as a Kempian conservative born out of his time and overwhelmed by the swell of white tribalism, we should recognize him as part of that very same problem that Trump represents. Bigoted rhetoric is dangerous and inflammatory, but the fall of Paul Ryan should prompt us all to once again focus on the policies. He isn’t for “small government” so much as he is for limited government – limited to a certain group of people. Despite Republican claims to the contrary, they love identity politics. How else will they get they Big Government For White Men that they so desperately seek?