The Two Worlds of Paul Ryan

It’s hard to think about the United States’ place in the world without maintaining an underlying sense of its government’s direction.  Hillary Clinton presumably clinched the Democratic Party nomination last week.  Attention will swing now to the Republican primaries.

Jeb Bush may yet be his party’s nominee. That’s what I expected when he announced his candidacy in January. I still think a choice between Bush and Clinton would make for a very close race.

But a Bush nomination is a much longer shot today than nine months ago. Even if he makes it through the gantlet of the GOP primaries, he will have lost much of whatever advantage he might have enjoyed in the general election, for having been humiliated and pulled too far to the right.

Just about a year from now, we’ll see.  Meanwhile, you’ll probably agree that odds have swung sharply in favor of the Democrats retaining the White House after 2016.

What about 2020?  And 2024 beyond?

That’s why the really interesting news last week was the decision of Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) to become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

For the GOP to remain a national party, it must find candidates who can bridge the gap between its substantial mainstream faction and its Tea Party wing, and appeal to independent voters who in presidential elections can swing either way.

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, and John Kasich, current governor of Ohio, are the GOP’s mainstream candidates in this election. The Tea Party wing is represented by Ways and Means Committee chairman Ryan in all but an actual presidential candidacy; in his absence, by Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and the rest.

What’s the difference? Mainstream Republicans operate in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. They came to terms long ago – and as recently as the Reagan presidency – with the major reforms of the New Deal, social welfare and civil rights. They sought progress through reforms of the mixed economy — mainly deregulation, globalization, and a strong military.

The Tea Party acquired a name only after the post-crisis 2010 mid-term elections, but in fact it has a long history as an internecine rival to in the years since World War II.

Leaving aside the hastily improvised and often highly conflicted presidency of George W. Bush, today’s Tea Party harkens to a long series of candidates, who, though unsuccessful, had significant influence on subsequent policies one way or another. They include John McCain, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, H. Ross Perot, Jack Kemp – and, before them, Barry Goldwater and Robert Taft. (Taft, having briefly been Senate majority leader, nicely illustrates the difference between mainstream and establishment.)

Tea Party candidates want to start from scratch, privatizing social programs, beginning with Social Security and Medicare. That was what Ryan meant last week when he said, “Because we think the nation is on the wrong path, we have a duty to show the right one.”  The GOP, he continued, should make itself over from “an opposition party to a proposition party.”

So what about 2020?

For all the talk about the tension between Ryan and the forty or so members of the Freedom Caucus, who hold the key to his accession to the Speaker’s post, the real difference is that, despite having been re-elected eight times, Ryan doesn’t come from a particularly secure district. (Some of the hard-liners who swept into office in 2010 aren’t all that safe, either.)

In fact there are two Paul Ryans. One has worked in Washington virtually without interruption since before graduating from college in 1992. The other goes home to his wife and school-age children in Janesville, Wisconsin, on weekends.

Ryan the man of conviction has been reading the novelist Ayn Rand since discovering her in high school. At Miami University of Ohio, he was taken under the wing of William R. (Rich) Hart, a libertarian economics professor, who widened his horizons and recommended him when Ryan applied for a summer internship in the Washington office of Wisconsin Senator Robert Kasten, an enthusiast of “supply-side economics.”

When Kasten was defeated in 1992, Ryan went to work as a speechwriter for presidential candidate Jack Kemp, a man he describes as gradually becoming “a second father.”  (His own died when he was sixteen.).

Ryan returned briefly to Janesville in 1998, to work in the family construction business while he ran for office, and was elected to Congress at 28. With Kemp, he persuaded George W. Bush to seek to privatize Social Security in 2005. In 2008, Ryan produced the Republican Party’s “Road Map for America’s Future,” a nebulous ten-year budget plan that in 2010 galvanized the Republican Party in the mid-term elections. In 2012, Mitt Romney, a “country club Republican” if ever there was one (in Tea-Party parlance meaning “mainstream”), sought to balance his ticket by choosing Ryan as running mate.

Ryan the citizen of Janesville, on the other hand, is a true cheese-loving son of Wisconsin. A former altar boy, an observant Catholic, he hunts with a bow, follows the Green Bay Packers, strolls Main Street at every opportunity, and describes himself as a fifth-generation resident of the old manufacturing city, according to Amy Goldstein, of The Washington Post. She writes,

He comes from an arm of one of three local families known here, collectively, as the Irish mafia for their outsize roles in construction trades going back more than a century.

His family’s home on Courthouse Hill, with its Victorians [homes] on a bluff rising above the Rock River and Main Street, belonged to a scion of the founder of Parker Pen Co., which opened downtown in the late nineteenth century, and kept going until its last vestiges in town moved to Mexico five years ago. And his father put himself through law school on summertime wages from the GM assembly line.

Janesville may be Ryan’s hometown, but is not, as Goldstein reports, his political home turf.  The Wisconsin First is the congressional district that Democrat Les Aspin represented for 22 years, until 1992.  Like the rest of Wisconsin, Janesville has seen a steady decline in big-company unionized labor in the years since 1980 – a General Motors plant manufacturing Chevrolets closed in 2008 – but it remains a blue-collar town. Redistricting has added more conservative voters to the north, in Milwaukee’s western suburbs. Ryan is more affable than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But his hold upon the district is less than absolute.

Unless the Tea Party grows far more dominant in the next few years, Ryan is unlikely to win a presidential nomination. Serving as Tea Party spokesman in Washington as House Speaker is likely to make going home on weekends less fun rather than more. If Ryan keeps it up for any length of time, voters in his district may eventually send him to Washington to stay, by defeating him.

Either way, look for a mainstream Republican to lead the GOP in 2020. Who?  Who knows?  Chances are it will be a governor. Laboratories of democracy and all that.

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