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Paul Ryan started his political life hoping to be the champion of a sunny, forward-looking conservatism. He will step down from the House speakership as the personification of conservatism’s decline.

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E.J. Dionne Jr. mug

E.J. Dionne Jr. | The Washington Post

One is tempted to call Ryan’s journey tragic, the tale of a young, idealistic family man transformed into an enabler for the most morally indifferent and utterly selfish president in our nation’s history.

It’s hard to imagine that the 28-year-old who entered Congress in 1999 thought fate would lead him to protect a chief executive under scrutiny for an alleged payoff to a porn star, potential entanglements with Russian interference in our election, and efforts to derail legitimate investigations into his behavior.

Yet tragedy often implies a protagonist who suffered because of forces beyond his own control. Ryan is very much responsible for the fix he and his party are in. This is why he had to push back against suspicions that he is leaving before a political deluge engulfs House Republicans this fall.

Ryan has been driven by two priorities throughout his career: slashing taxes on the best-off Americans and eviscerating social-welfare and safety-net programs in the name of “entitlement reform.” Whatever advanced these objectives was worth doing.

In announcing his retirement from Congress on Wednesday, he was thus reduced to repeating four times in response to questions that he was “grateful” to President Trump for creating the opportunity, as Ryan put it at one point, “to actually get this stuff done.”

The “stuff” the speaker was obsessed with included a corporate tax cut that ballooned a deficit he has made a career out of denouncing. Despite Ryan’s rhetoric, deficits never counted for him if they were created by showering money on the country’s privileged sectors.

At his news conference, Ryan was required by journalists to acknowledge the trillion-dollar annual budget holes that a supposedly conservative Congress and administration have helped create. He reiterated his stock response, mourning that the Senate never approved his plans to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps, which is the policy translation of the bloodless phrase “entitlement reform.”

The many in Washington who personally like Ryan often wonder how he could so readily cozy up to Trump and empower House members — notably Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes — who have turned themselves into propagandists for Trump’s desperate quest to escape accountability.

The answer lies paradoxically in Ryan’s idealism, rooted in his youthful fascination with the philosophy of Ayn Rand. She identified with society’s winners and regarded ordinary citizens as moochers and burdens on the creative and the entrepreneurial.

Although Ryan gave warm speeches about compassion, his biggest fear was not that the poor might go without food or health care but, as he once said, that the “safety net” might “become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”

He later backed away from Rand and acknowledged that the hammock was “the wrong analogy.” But his policies suggested that he never abandoned his core faith: If the wealthy did best when given positive incentives in the form of more money, the less fortunate needed to be prodded by less generous social policies into taking responsibility for their own fate.

Given where Ryan’s passions lie, it is unsurprising that he would prop Trump up as long as the president was willing to embrace a modern-day Social Darwinism that married efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act with reductions in government’s impositions on the managers and owners of capital. The retiring speaker really does believe that this is the path to the good society. To pursue it, he’ll take help wherever he can get it.

If Ryan has presidential ambitions, he is certainly wise to walk away now. The House Republican majority and Trump himself may well be wrecked by the president’s unscrupulous impulsiveness. Ryan’s departure will not only give him time with his family — those who know him see the politician’s proverbial excuse for leave-taking as having reality in his case — but also the opportunity to try to cleanse himself of the stain left by a low and dishonest political moment. In 2024, he will be just 54.

Yet he has been propelled to the exits because his sort of conservatism hit a dead end. It’s why we have Trump, and why Ryan was forced to acquiesce to a man whose statements he once condemned as racist and whose personal life is the antithesis of his own. This is the part of Ryan’s legacy he’ll have great difficulty living down.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne can be reached at ejdionne @washpost.com.

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(6) comments

Cassandra2

Ryan was driven by a SINGLE priority--to take all he could get while scruwing over the working class, poor and elderly.

mocha1

Libs still do not get it. Trump was elected because America was sick and tired of the liberal agenda. Ryan was a gushy elitist who did not have a backbone to do what was right for America. I say good riddance.

oldhomey

Right, mocha. Now we have Trump in charge, he is taunting Russia, which said it will attack our bases and warships if Trump makes good on his promise to attack Syrian bases. Not to worry, because he is also taunting North Korea and China at the same time. Not to worry, because at the same time he is taunting and threatening to fire Robert Mueller and setting off a huge constitutional crisis at home in the middle of all this. Not to worry, because . . . well, you get the idea. Trump is no gushy elitist, he is an erupting elitist who has never shown backbone once in his life and is not about to do so. We're SO glad he is in the White House doing what he thinks is right for himself, America be damned.

Cassandra2

Trump did NOT get the majority of votes. And the votes that he did get were bought and paid for by Russia.

oldhomey

Wow. That is a very harsh and tough assessment, but I won't argue with it. Ryan's desire to eviscerate Social Security, Medicaare, Medicaid and food stamps, among other social programs, certainly in my mind made him an excellent candidate for himself being hauled up on the political guillotine, because he was essentially arguing for shortening the lives of tens of millions if he had succeeded -- a murderous agenda, indeed.

kingman10

"Ryan has been driven by two priorities throughout his career: slashing taxes on the best-off Americans and eviscerating social-welfare and safety-net programs in the name of “entitlement reform.” Whatever advanced these objectives was worth doing." The very economic ladders that helped Ryan as a youth are the very ones he was bent on destroying. He legacy is nothing to be proud of and certainly does not sit well with his Catholic religion. But selling your soul to the Oligarchy for political purposes has its repercussions, and Ryan could read the writing on the wall. So I guess he is not a total imbecile, but any thoughts of running for any other office would be a joke. He can join the likes of Boenner, and go back to his church and ask for forgiveness for all he has done.

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