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Paul Ryan’s Catastrophic Lack of Political Skill and Judgment

Monday, March 27, 2017 14:02
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By John Ellis /

Everyone knows that a competent lawyer never asks a question in court to which he doesn’t already know the answer. And likewise, a competent political leader never puts a piece of legislation up for a vote without having a good idea of what the vote will be. But when Paul Ryan released his American Health Care Act he evidently had no idea what its reception would be. Whole sections of his own party were angered, and it was obvious that his bill had no chance of passage without truly major changes.

Why didn’t Ryan know all of that before he published the bill? A skilled leader sounds out the major opinion centers in his party to get a sense of what it will take to get them all on board, so that by the time the bill is published he knows where everyone stands and how they will vote. By going public with his bill before ascertaining the lay of the land, Ryan has created an ugly rift within his party, delayed and endangered the forward movement of the Trump administration, and further alienated a GOP base which has long been exasperated by the ineffectiveness of its congressional leaders. But Paul Ryan’s political incompetence is by now a very old story.

As the 2016 primary election season was about to begin, Ryan negotiated with the Obama administration an omnibus budget bill once more without bothering to find out what his party would and would not accept. And so he was surprised to find that his Republicans were more than disappointed: they were furious. His agreement funded almost every hot button issue that Obama was desperate to have funded and Republicans were just as determined not to fund: Obama’s illegal executive amnesty was funded, his Muslim refugee program funded, sanctuary cities funded, yet there was no money for a border fence. House Democrats were so delighted that 90% of them voted in favor of the agreement while only 60% of Republicans voted affirmatively, and many of those voted as they did not because they liked the deal, but because they didn’t want to humiliate a new leader. Simmering annoyance with a chronically passive and inept GOP congressional leadership became white hot anger.  This may well have been the point at which Donald Trump’s winning the party nomination became inevitable. Ryan could not have done more to promote his candidacy.

Ryan’s own explanation of what he had done made things worse: he was excited at having secured the extension of some relatively circumscribed tax breaks—breaks applicable to particular business situations, not to the general public. In exchange for these he had given away everything his party’s voters cared deeply about. Ryan had demonstrated that he is a wonk and number-cruncher so focused on budgetary detail that he loses sight of political reality: he is politically tone-deaf.

The same wonkish narrow vision and consequent political blindness was already apparent in 2012 when in the middle of an election season in which he was a Vice-Presidential candidate, again without first getting his colleagues on board, Ryan suddenly proposed a radical reform of Medicare. His colleagues immediately found themselves having to deal with the fallout (in mid-election) from Ryan’s politically hazardous proposal.  It was one more demonstration of Ryan’s lack of political judgment: he had had what he thought was a good idea, and so floated it, without the slightest regard for the political context.

Yet another instance of Ryan’s lack of political antennae came when in 2015 Kevin McCarthy blew up his candidacy for the Speakership with his major political gaffe concerning the Benghazi committee. Virtually everyone knew instantly that the party must look elsewhere for a Speaker: McCarthy was so obviously unable to speak carefully that he could never be the party’s spokesman. But the political reality seen by everyone else was invisible to Ryan, who now wrote an op-ed enthusiastically promoting McCarthy’s candidacy for Speaker, just as everyone else was concluding that this would be a horrible mistake. There would have been open rebellion in the GOP had McCarthy been elected Speaker.

Ryan’s political tin ear has at least temporarily torpedoed of the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. It has already begun to endanger the prospects for corporate tax reform. Nothing is more important for the Trump administration than getting corporate taxes down from their present absurdly high level, as well as getting corporate profits held abroad repatriated by reducing the punitive tax rates to which they would be subjected. Trump needs these reforms immediately so that the economy can get into high gear quickly enough to ensure that Republican House and Senate majorities survive the mid-term elections.

But once again Ryan the political klutz has delayed progress on tax reform by tying these desperately needed measures to his wildly unpopular “border adjustment.” That wonkish term will scarcely endear itself either to the many who don’t know what to make of it because they have never heard it before, or to those who understand that it represents an attempt to avoid words like “tariff” or “taxes” that would never appeal to growth–oriented Republicans. Yet again, Ryan’s “border adjustment” was floated without his having done a political leader’s essential homework: he never bothered to find out how it would go down with his members before going public with it, and so has caused a nasty, time-consuming, and wholly unnecessary internecine fight among Republicans.

With control of House, Senate and the Presidency, and with so much that cries out to be done after eight years of Obama inaction and/or mismanagement, Republicans have a golden opportunity to advance their own electoral fortunes by doing well for their country. But all of this is endangered by the fact that their major congressional leader is a man without political instincts, skills, or judgment. It’s unfair to say that he is a RINO, or to question his value to the party as the source of ideas that are sometimes very useful. But it is not unfair to say that he is a policy wonk who is in the wrong job. Wonks come up with ideas and hope that others will be persuaded by them. Political leaders have a quite different job to do: they must manage the political process by which those ideas may or may not come to fruition. Ryan is good in the first of these roles, and horribly unsuited to the second. He still behaves like a wonk and so regularly produces political chaos.

The failure of the AHCA was Ryan’s failure, not Trump’s: all of Trump’s negotiating skills and heroic efforts could not redeem the mess that Ryan had created. Much will now depend on whether congressional Republicans understand that they must find themselves a new Speaker if they and the President are not to suffer one embarrassing setback after another.

John M Ellis is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars.

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