Paul Ryan: The Silent Speaker

Paul D. Ryan was one of the few reassuring touchstones for traditional Republicans, assuring them that the GOP hadn’t completely imploded. As a result, many of the pieces written about Ryan’s decision not to run for reelection in 2018 conflate his exit with the end of a Republican Party once characterized by people like Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. As the party ambles through the Donald Trump wilderness, its experienced navigators continue to fall away, most notably in sight of an unfavorable wave election. Pew Research Center notes that about 38 Republican House Members will not seek reelection–a near record high. Add to that list, Paul D. Ryan whose announced departure from the House of Representatives has inspired numerous articles about his legacy.

Poring over the pieces recounting his triumphs and failings, I have found the most mystifying articles those castigating the Speaker for not “speaking out” more strongly against President Donald Trump. I truly struggle to understand this critique, if it is, in fact, made in good faith.

I think it is important to note that these articles come from a liberal perspective (there may be conservative writers criticizing Ryan on similar grounds, but I have not seen them yet). This observation matters for two reasons: first, liberals tend to overestimate the power of protesting.

For example, Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic:

“Ryan blinked at confronting the president’s appeals to white racial resentments. Pressed for reaction to comments like Trump’s reported description of African nations as ‘shithole’ countries, Ryan managed to mumble the bare minimum of plausible criticism: ‘The first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful.’ For most people genuinely distressed by Trump’s remarks, ‘unfortunate’ and ‘unhelpful’ were probably not the first words that came to mind; ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’ were.”

What exactly Brownstein believes a more forceful condemnation would have done escapes me. Donald Trump would not reflect on those comments and apologize. In fact, when Ryan said that Trump’s comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel were an example of textbook racism, nothing changed. Of course, a decent person does not wear the label “racist” as a “badge of honor,” but I suspect that Brownstein would not characterize the President as a decent person. Who would?

On the other hand, what we do know is that President Trump works with people who “say nice things” about him. So, besides obliterate any possibility that Ryan could achieve his own legislative ends, those policies once associated with Republicans, what would harsher criticism have accomplished?

This, of course, is the point, and is the second reason why this particular criticism comes from the left: Liberals want a crippled GOP. A crippled GOP can’t pass tax cuts, or curtail government spending. A crippled GOP can’t reform entitlements, and it cannot do so in Ryan’s image if Ryan is feuding with a mercurial president who has no grand vision. In other words, goading Ryan and other traditional Republicans to follow the Jeff Flake model is a surefire way to ensure that no part of a conservative agenda is served. In the face of criticism Trump doesn’t change. He tweets. The offending politician may lose his or her job, and the GOP distills, becoming even more Trumpian–even more difficult to defend.

Furthermore, Paul Ryan is not a commentator. His role in the political process is to compromise with people with whom he disagrees to win legislative victories for the people who elected him. Ryan worked with President Barack Obama and with the House Freedom Caucus to accomplish as much as he could, a task that required him to speak strategically, not emotionally. Not symbolically. Perhaps in a new role he will have the freedom to speak for himself and to solely bear the responsibility of what he says. Perhaps he will choose, still, to refrain. Either way, he hadn’t that freedom before.

As for the articles suggesting that the Trumpian changes in the GOP are forcing out thoughtful conservatives like Ryan, there can be no doubt.

Political Math

Imagine, if you will, a Venn Diagram in which the left circle (A) represents virtuous Americans who possess strong leadership skills, intelligence, amiability, and the ability to comprehend and solve complex problems. Let the right circle (B) represent Americans willing to have their reputations muddled, their words distorted, and their personal failings broadcast and analyzed by strangers ad nauseum. From the circles’ overlap (AᑎB) we choose our party nominees and eventually, our president.

 

Americans universally agree that media sensationalism and emphasis on scandal scares people in Circle A away from politics; leaving the American public to choose leaders from a throng of celebrities and empty narcissists. This election cycle, Republican candidates have weathered particularly biased media coverage and distortion. From detailed examinations of Marco and Jeannette Rubio’s moving violations, to Scott Walker’s educational credentials, to things Dr. Ben Carson did or didn’t say; media has provided the very cynical coverage that is so universally detested.

 

A prime example of this malfeasance regards coverage of Jeb Bush’s “stuff happens” remarks.

The Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts wrote one of the less braindead pieces about Bush’s comments, a piece that begins:

 

“And the Bush family’s War on English continues.”

 

Pitts goes on to compare Bush’s “callous” remarks to a “stink bomb in the flower bed.” He calls them “dismissive,” and lectures Bush–and conservatives–about why the comment is so reprehensible.

 

“‘Stuff happens’?…It doesn’t happen like this in Great Britain. It doesn’t happen like this in Brazil. It doesn’t happen like this in Israel…It would behoove us to try and figure out what other countries know that we do not.”

 

Take away the fact that none of these countries’ history, culture or philosophy match our own, and that most of us would rather live in an American ghetto than a Brazilian favela, and Pitts simply penned a typically thoughtless liberal response to gun violence. So what makes his article “less braindead?” He acknowledges that Bush’s “callous” comments were taken out of context.

 

The story of Bush’s “stuff happens” comment started with the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza tweeting the two words out of context. News media pounced. President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton scolded Bush over this account of Bush’s “indifference” to gun violence. When asked about his statement, Bush doubled down. Republican and independent voters, donors, and Bush supporters, who hadn’t the time to research the full quote; or who were depressed by the barrage of negative press were likely to be less enthusiastic about Bush in light of this “news.” Maybe Jeb’s inarticulateness is as bad as his brother’s. That’s how the media tells the story, after all.

 

When conservatives hounded Lizza to provide the full quote [here], it became clear that the “stuff happens” story was just another smear job. The kind of smear job that keeps people in Circle A away from politics. In fact, buried in Pitts’ daft rant against comments that were never made, he acknowledges that “this is just a new round of the gaffe gotcha game where you strip clumsy language of inconvenient context so as to imply the candidate said or meant something he never said or meant. So let’s be fair: Bush was not being callous toward the Oregon tragedy…”

 

Pitts’ article could end there. Perhaps it could even call on the media to be more responsible–less nakedly partisan. Pitts could have reminded us, as The Federalist Staff did, that the media response to Bush’s statement is eerily dissimilar to their coverage of the same language coming from a certain Democrat politician.

 

“When bad stuff happens around the world, the first question is what is the United States going to do about it,” President Obama said about children being gassed in Syria.

 

“This stuff happens way too often,” President Obama said about the Charleston shooting.

 

To turn our ire to President Obama for saying “stuff happens” misses the point. Our disgust should be aimed squarely at a media that reduces a conversation about the limits of legislation to two words that do not characterize Bush’s remarks or his sentiment. Our disgust should be aimed at the fourth estate–the very institution that makes a liberal democracy possible.

 

It is no wonder 60% of Americans distrust the media. It is no wonder our politicians look more like Donald Trump and less like Adlai Stevenson. It’s no wonder AᑎB is so small. What more can we expect when this “stuff happens?”