When deficit warrior Paul Ryan came to Congress in 1999, the national debt was $5.6 trillion. When House Speaker Paul Ryan leaves in 2019, the figure will be about $22 trillion.
In announcing his retirement from Congress, Ryan touted on Wednesday as his greatest accomplishments an enormous tax cut that will devastate suburbs like Long Island, and a bill massively hiking military spending. Thanks to those two initiatives, that national debt will reach $30 trillion by 2028. The debt will have grown from 40 percent of gross domestic product to 100 percent. And the nation’s finances will be in terrible shape, with too much money spent on debt and too little to care for its citizens.
From his arrival in Washington, then as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, and until the Republican Party captured the White House and held both chambers of Congress in 2016, Ryan was known as the GOP’s grown-up in the room and a principled conservative. He got the numbers, and his “Path to Prosperity” proposals did add up, if only because they were too optimistic about the benefits of tax cuts for the rich.
Ryan’s theoretical road maps balanced because they included huge cuts, not just reforms, in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending, along with nearly every other federal assistance program. But while Americans like the slogan “smaller government,” they vehemently oppose cuts to entitlements. One of Donald Trump’s great advantages in the battle for the GOP nomination was his realization that even Republican voters don’t want such cuts, and would punish candidates who promised them. And Ryan’s greatest failure was his inability to stand up to Trump on economics, or anything else.
With no way to pay for tax cuts and spending increases, a principled conservative would have stopped them. Instead, Ryan put tax cuts for the rich benefactors of his party above all else. Budget deficits are certain to be his legacy. Responsibility for the devastation of the social safety net, if it comes, will also fall partly on him. As will the end of the GOP’s claim to fiscal conservatism and deficit opposition. He can’t take all the blame — but neither can he avoid it all.