Paul Ryan: The Man Vs The Myth

The implosion of Paul Ryan’s AHCA healthcare bill on Friday was easily one of the greatest political fiascos of the last decade. It was a spectacular nail-biter of political theater involving plot twists and larger-than-life characters playing hands and making plays that they’d spent years plotting and teasing. Over the past week analysts and pundits had a field day speculating on what the various potential outcomes could mean for the future of America’s healthcare system but when the dust finally settled there wasn’t much to write home about.

Ultimately after scheduling and rescinding a vote on Thursday and then being handed a Friday ultimatum from Donald Trump the AHCA bill never actually came to a vote. In a hasty lunch meeting with Trump, Paul Ryan revealed that he didn’t have the necessary votes to pass the bill and suggested to Trump that they simply take it back off the table for the foreseeable future – Trump agreed.

While this was probably the best call they could have made, neither Trump nor Ryan made it out of this process unscathed. In the weeks leading up to the scheduled vote Trump had gone to bat heavily for the bill and attempted to deploy his abilities as a “deal maker” to bring around rogue factions within the house, namely – the Freedom Caucus. Despite his efforts, Trump was unable to shift many votes. So how exactly did this ship sink and what made Trump decide to go along for the ride?

The Myth of Paul Ryan:

During the eight years of the Obama administration, Paul Ryan built a brand for himself as a “policy wonk” – a title so stupid and meaningless that only the media could have dreamt it up. Ryan was held up within the GOP as an “idea man” and the answer to the question of who within the GOP house could actually draft and pitch legislation that would have broad appeal. This was seen as a rare and desirable quality amongst the fairly junior ranks of the Republican house at the time. The growing Tea Party movement had made the house flush with inexperienced, non-politician reps who were eager for a more seasoned frontman to lead.

The GOP establishment was equally prepared to give Ryan their blessing as they’d been struggling to catch their breath between the sweeping coalition that brought Obama into office and the more far-right elements of the infant Tea Party.

So Paul Ryan began to appear increasingly at the forefront of the Republican house alongside Speaker John Boehner and taking every available opportunity to pitch his brand to an eager media. As Chair of the House Budget Committee Ryan put his “wonk” skills to work and drafted a much maligned budget that he called the “Path to Prosperity” and would ultimately receive credit for the negotiation of the Bipartisan Budget Act in 2013.

All the while Paul Ryan along with his fellow Republicans made the Affordable Care Act a cornerstone of their opposition platform and Ryan used this opposition as a leverage point in most of his budget work. This rapid ascent to power ultimately landed Ryan on the 2012 Republican presidential ticket alongside Mitt Romney and while he would go on to lose that race he returned to the house to ultimately become Speaker, replacing John Boehner.

This brings us to today and to a world where the Republican party controls the house, the senate and the presidency. In theory, this is a world in which the mythical version of Paul Ryan should be able to deliver on all of his promises, hopes and dreams.

The Man, Paul Ryan:

Withdrawing the AHCA bill on Friday was a shameful and blistering defeat for the Speaker. After seven years of rhetoric and promises this should have been Ryan’s opportunity to finally cement his legacy and confirm his own legend as a policy genius and mastermind but when the curtain fell the reveal was something else entirely.

The AHCA bill that was finally presented was a disaster by almost every measure. The bill would cost millions of Americans their coverage, it would result in a tax break almost exclusively for the wealth, it would not meaningful impact the budget or deficit, and it ultimately looked a suspicious amount like Obamacare itself. Upon delivery, the bill was panned by nearly every faction of the American right. The more moderate Republicans claimed that the bill went too far and would jeopardize their upcoming elections. The more far-right Republicans said that the bill did not go nearly far enough.

With no compromise in sight, Paul Ryan found himself now trapped between a dysfunctional, divided party and his own legislation built on his brand of policy expertise. Withdrawing the bill would spare the party infighting and public disarray but would cost him his personal collateral as the GOP’s guiding light. So the Speaker turned to Donald Trump to gamble on a different myth entirely.

The Pact:

Since the day Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign he had pitched himself as an outsider, deal-maker and businessman. These were the core traits that propelled the idea that he may be able to make significant headway in Washington where others had failed or become caught up in the machine. Paul Ryan now needed Trump to deliver on those claims to help sell his bill.

This is how Donald Trump found himself advocating and negotiating on behalf of a bill he barely understood, didn’t necessarily like and that broke nearly all of his campaign promises regarding healthcare. If Trump could secure the votes and push the bill through it would be seen as a major victory for his administration and solidify his own brand as a man who can call shots and make deals.

After taking an absolute beating in the media and several weeks of interviews and closed-door meetings, an exhausted Trump went for broke and laid down a firm ultimatum. The White House issued a statement that Trump wanted to see a vote on Friday and would be moving on after that, regardless of the outcome. For all of Trump’s efforts in the days leading up to the vote the Republicans in opposition to the bill seemed unfazed and unimpressed.

On Friday, after withdrawing the bill, Paul Ryan made a brief announcement and called Friday a “disappointing day”. He would later go on to comment during an interview that Obamacare was “the law of the land” and would remain so for “the foreseeable future”.

What this defeat means for Paul Ryan and his foreseeable future remains to be seen but after seven years of promises, platforms, and pontificating, Paul Ryan’s “policy wonk” days ended not with a bang, but a whimper.