Say this for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who announced his pending retirement from Congress on Wednesday. Of all his powers, the ability to cloud Washington journalists' minds was the most remarkable.
Time after time, Ryan would be hailed as a sage: a budget wonk, a "reformer" of Social Security and Medicare, a defender of the poor. Time after time, he would articulate the most transparent lies about social insurance programs and the Affordable Care Act, while interviewers as august as Charlie Rose sat at his feet, lapping it up. It was a conspiracy of ignorance that placed the welfare of millions of Americans at risk.
Some journalists laudably were immune to the magic. Among them, Matthew Yglesias of Vox, who on Wednesday recalled Ryan's fatuous promise to protect "dreamers"—the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program being canceled by President Trump. He failed to protect them and failed to move legislation to revive DACA.
As Yglesias observes, Ryan actually failed in almost everything he set out to do — repeal Obamacare, eviscerate Medicare and Medicaid — though his actions and inactions made all these government programs work worse for the people they were enacted to help. He did succeed, however, in passing a big tax cut for the wealthy.
Ryan will be showered with pro-forma encomiums as he takes a last lap around the legislative arena. They've started already. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) remarked on "his steadfast commitment to our country," though she took what might be considered a subtextual slap at his legacy, such as it is: "During his final months, Democrats are hopeful that he joins us to work constructively to advance better futures for all Americans."
The truth is that Ryan, a big fan of that avatar of plutocratic selfishness Ayn Rand, had only one detectable legislative principle. It was to promote the transfer of wealth upwards.
In March 2017, when he had begun the push for a huge tax cut for the wealthy that finally bore fruit in December, he had the temerity to declare that the "big, big drivers of our debt" were "Obamacare, Medicaid, and Medicare." He repeated the mantra even after the $1.5-trillion tax cut passed.
In that interview, Ryan said his goal of capping Medicaid was on the verge of success and simpered to his interlocutor, National Review Editor Rich Lowry, "We've been dreaming of this since I've been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg." Some young men dream of devoting their life to making life better for others; Ryan dreamed of cutting healthcare benefits.
In 2012, Ryan unveiled a federal budget blueprint that would have eviscerated the middle class. Among its centerpieces was a redesign of Medicare, the most effective and efficient of our public healthcare programs, that would sharply raise costs for its aged enrollees. The Kaiser Family Foundation calculated that in 2022, the out-of-pocket medical expenses of the typical 65-year-old would come to half his or her Social Security income — double the level under traditional Medicare.
Ryan may have made his name as a sworn enemy of Medicare and Social Security — even though his college career was funded, at least partially, by the dependent benefits he had received from Social Security — but he really went to town on the Affordable Care Act. His Republican House caucus voted more than three-score times to repeal the law, fueled in part by the flagrant lies Ryan told about the program in public, before audiences often comprising ignorant and fawning members of the Washington press corps. I documented these lies here and here.
So farewell, Paul Ryan. We can't agree with Pelosi's picture of your "steadfast commitment to our country." From where we stand, your steadfast commitment was to your wealthy patrons, and no one else.