Paul Ryan used to be the star of the closest thing the Grand Old Party had to a boy band: the Young Guns.
With fellow congressmen Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, Ryan adopted that moniker back when the “Party of Lincoln” was remaking itself as the “Party of No.” The trio penned a book by that title in 2010. Its subhead heralded the trio as “A New Generation of Conservative Leaders,” while promotional materials announced, “This isn’t your grandfather’s Republican party. These Young Guns of the House GOP—Cantor (the leader), Ryan (the thinker), and McCarthy (the strategist)—are ready to take their belief in the principles that have made America great and translate it into solutions that will make the future even better.”
Cantor and McCarthy did their parts. But Ryan was everyone’s favorite: the heartthrob whose proposals to gut Social Security and Medicare got conservative donors swooning. By 2012, he had hit the big time: joining the Romney-Ryan supergroup that toured as the hottest Republican ticket since McCain-Palin.
Six years later, however, the Young Guns are history, and Ryan is barely charting.
Cantor (the leader) proved to be such a lousy leader that he was defeated by a local college professor in a 2014 primary.
Ryan (the thinker) is still playing. But the big-ticket days are over. He ended up with a speakership that he said he didn’t want. And his ideas have proven to be exceptionally unpopular—not just with the great mass of Americans who rejected him as a vice presidential prospect in 2012 but with the grassroots of his own party.
The former “star” found that out the hard way in 2016.
In an election year when Ryan fans had imagined that the Wisconsinite might take center stage as the Republican nominee for president, Ryan is instead appearing as a sideman in Donald Trump’s shock-rock show. Whatever shred of dignity the congressman might have maintained after his losing bid for the vice presidency (which included a debate pummeling at the hands of Joe Biden) has long since been lost. Ryan’s role in 2016 has been reduced to a recurring nightmare stunt. Whenever Trump strikes a horribly wrong note—as he did Tuesday with sinister speculation about how “Second Amendment people” might respond to the election of Democrat Hillary Clinton as president—Ryan’s job is to announce that, while he objects to the most awful things that Trump says and does, he still supports the Republican nominee.
Ryan can tell himself that he is jamming on solutions that will make the future even better, but all that Americans are hearing these days are the sorry excuses he makes when Trump promotes intolerance, insults heroes, and trashes the Constitution.
That is the shadow that hangs over every political move that Ryan makes this year. On Tuesday, the speaker won his reelection primary handily, securing the overwhelming victory that everyone but the most delusional right-wingers had expected. All that means, however, is that Paul Ryan “the thinker” is not quite so tragic a figure as Eric Cantor “the leader.”
Ryan is still capable of spending a fortune and beating a complete political unknown in a district that he has represented for almost two decades. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted after the race was called: “It had been 42 years since a Wisconsin congressman lost a party primary, and Ryan’s longstanding popularity with home-state Republicans made him a very unlikely candidate to repeat that rare feat.”
But the fact that the speaker of the United States House of Representatives had to put any energy at all into seeing off a primary challenge from a guy who introduced his candidacy with music videos of himself riding a motorcycle offers a measure of how absurd things have become for Ryan.
Ryan cannot even make news on his own anymore. The whole conversation about the top congressional Republican’s primary contest with political newcomer Paul Nehlen—whose platform was basically a reprise of nasty noises sounded by Trump—was about whether the Republican nominee for president would endorse the Republican speaker of the House. The billionaire ultimately did give Ryan his blessing four days before the primary. So now Trump can claim he saved Ryan. (That’s not really the case, but when did reality ever stop the Donald?)
These are miserable times for Paul Ryan. And things are unlikely to get any better for the tarnished golden boy.
Does anyone really entertain the notion that what has become the “Party of Trump” will eventually long for the good old days of “Romney-Ryan” and embrace a Paul Ryan revival?
Even “the thinker” must recognize by now that the Young Guns had their moment in 2010. Or, perhaps in his case, 2012. The moment came and went.
Donald Trump’s the star now, and all Paul Ryan can do is tell the world that he still supports an off-key billionaire who hits every wrong note. Even as he declared victory on Tuesday night, Ryan suggested that Trump’s talk about “Second Amendment people” and Clinton was “just a joke gone bad.”
“I hope he clears it up pretty quickly,” chirped the thinker.