When I look at Paul Ryan, Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, I see Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For centuries art aficionados have had many interpretations of the meaning behind the smile, nor has it been decided, but equally debated, who Mona Lisa was.
Does that sound like Paul Ryan? Is the smile actually a smirk? What’s the meaning of the limp applause he rendered behind Donald Trump at the State of the Union Address?
Was it, “Of course, he’s my guy.” Or, “I can’t stand this chump.”
For quite a while, Ryan’s leadership style resembles a high-wire act — carefully wobbling from side to side, especially in his own party.
For example, previously known as the quintessential fiscal conservative, he gave full-throated endorsement to a tax bill that blows up the deficit. But with that he appeased fat-cat Republicans — future campaign donors? — who couldn’t care less about the deficit when tax cuts are on the menu.
And after the House passed the tax bill, the same Paul Ryan, who previously said he would not campaign with Trump, commented that Trump provided “exquisite leadership” in negotiating the bill.
Then in an interview with Savannah Guthrie, when asked if a stimulus created by tax cuts would offset the deficit, Ryan waxed poetic: “Nobody knows the answer to that question, because that’s in the future.” To quote writer and actor William Gibson: “The future is there ... looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become.”
And then there’s the Donald Trump Two Step. In May of 2016, as Trump was deep into controversy on the campaign trail, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Ryan if he would endorse the nominee. He said, “I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I’m not there.” But in the weeks following, in response to jittery high-brow Republicans and their corporate backers, Ryan gave assurances he would indeed endorse Trump.
But to his fellow Republicans, Ryan’s strategy of playing both ends against the middle isn’t working for him so well.
Regarding Ryan’s astounding position on the tax bill, in a Fox News Sunday interview, Jim Jordon, R-Ohio, didn’t hold back. “You asked me if they’re problems with the speaker. I think there are big concerns because he just presided over one of the biggest spending increases in the history of the country at a time when we were elected to do just the opposite.”
But for years tax cuts had been Ryan’s most passionate political cause. He was added to the Mitt Romney presidential ticket in 2012 because of it. That Republicans were caught off-guard by this demonstrates how much cohesiveness is lacking in their party, and that Donald Trump may not be the only dangerously independent man in their ranks.
But this is likely not how Ryan envisioned his political career — stuck in no-man’s land, with his party and his ambition at odds. It’s particularly confounding considering that his upward trajectory began with privilege and a well-connected family of politicians.
His paternal lineage dates back to 1884 when his great-grandfather founded an earth moving company. And though the name has gone through several iterations over the years, Ryan Incorporated Central is a very successful business with contracts in 25 states and headquarters in four states.
Ryan’s grandfather, Stanley M. Ryan (1898–1957), was a U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin. His father, Paul Davis Ryan, was an attorney. When you’re born into a family of politicians and private schools — think the Kennedys, Bush father and son, Ron and Rand Paul — it’s hard to get the taste of power out of your mouth.
Undoubtedly, Ryan sees himself as keeper of the Ryan family legacy of smart, successful men who are also gifted with savvy, but savvy and discipline are what Ryan lacks. Still, If he doesn’t become president of the United States someday, it will be a monumental failure of the perfect resume.