In a normal time, the announcement that the Republican speaker of the House is retiring to spend more time with his family — after just a few years on the job — at a moment when Republicans control the federal government and have more officeholders nationwide than at any time in almost a century and the economy is roaring would be almost unimaginable. But that news is already starting to feel like one of those mildly interesting things that happened last week, like when you find a lone curly fry in your bag of normal fries.
As a general proposition, I don’t like getting to know politicians. The list of reasons why is too long to lay out in its entirety here. But some of the top reasons include:
Most politicians are actually pretty boring. Maybe they’re not boring with constituents and their friends, or when they’re tying women to bed posts, but around pundit types, they often tend to be so cautious and untrusting (I wonder why!) that normal conversations outside of sports (which I am hardly fluent in) often become awkward and, sometimes, painful.
Many are conniving and needy. I’m always amazed by how many House members remind me of characters from Glengarry Glen Ross. They may not be constantly begging for the good leads, but they’re always looking to make a sale, work an angle, or get some advantage. Many older Republicans love to complain, like Jack Lemmon’s Shelley Levene over a cup of cold coffee, that they’re never given the respect they’re due from conservative journalists. The senators are often Stepford Politicians. You can almost hear the gears grinding inside their skulls as they try to figure out how the biped in front of their Ocular Sensors could be useful, or detrimental, to their future presidential run. Again, this may not be how they are with normal people. It might just be how they treat people in my line of work, particularly if they don’t know them. Lions don’t make friends with hyenas and all that.
Very few of them are intellectually interesting. I have no idea what the numbers are — but it seems to me that very few politicians are really interested in ideas, save when tactics, marketing ploys, and stratagems can be gussied up as ideas. This doesn’t mean they’re not smart — or, at least, cunning — but for both good and ill, politics doesn’t reward being able to talk about de Tocqueville nearly as much as it rewards being able to remember the first names of every car-dealership mogul and union honcho in your district.
There are exceptions to all of these things, of course. Mike Gallagher is a really interesting and fun congressman. Kevin McCarthy isn’t an intellectual as far as I can tell, but he comes across as the kind of guy you’d want to go to Vegas with. Ben Sasse — my occasional podcast victim — is the rare exception to all of these observations. I’m not sure he’d be a good Vegas wingman (he’d probably be constantly asking the pit boss about casino metrics of something or other), but he’s almost surely the most intellectually engaging senator since Pat Moynihan.
All that said, the most important reason I try to avoid getting to know politicians is that friendship is a burden.
Because I haven’t bought that pill whose main ingredient was originally found in jellyfish, I can’t remember if I’ve written this before, but I bring this up all the time in speeches. My policy towards politicians is similar to that of research scientists towards their lab animals: You don’t want to get too attached, because you might have to stick the needle in deep one day.
It’s much easier to jab Test Subject 37B than it is to stab Mr. Whiskers.
Similarly, it’s easier to give politicians a hard time if you don’t feel any personal loyalty to them. As I’ve long argued, friendship can be far more corrupting than money (if a friend asked me to write a column on their book, I’d sincerely consider it. If a stranger offered me cash to write about it, I’d show him the anterior side of the digit between my index and ring fingers).
And that brings me to Paul Ryan.
I’ll admit upfront: I like Paul Ryan, personally. I’ve known him a bit for years. No, we’re not buddies. I’ve never gone bow-hunting with him or eaten a single cheese curd in his presence (a bonding ritual in his native lands). But even before I met him, I felt I knew and understood him better than most politicians. I started in D.C. as a larval think tanker, and so did Ryan. We’re about the same age (I know, I know: I look so much younger — and healthier) and share a lot of the same intellectual and political lodestars. There was a time when Jack Kemp was my Dashboard Saint, too.
I’ll spare you all the punditry about Ryan’s retirement (I’ll simply say ditto about Dan McLaughlin, Jim Geraghty, and John Podhoretz’s takes). I think he’s telling the truth about wanting to be with his family. But I also think, if we were on Earth-2 and President Mitch Daniels were in office and Republicans were enjoying the luxury of a boring and mature presidency that was tackling head-on the Sweet Fiscal Crisis of Death coming our way, the pull of Ryan’s family might not have been nearly so acute.
Again, I’m biased. But as a general rule, whether you’re on the right or the left, if you personally hate Paul Ryan, that’s an indicator to me that you’re an unreasonable person. Sure, you can disagree with him. You can be disappointed in him. But if you buy the claptrap from the Krugmanite Left or the Bannonite Right about Ryan, if you think he’s evil or a fraud, I’m going to assume you’re part of the problem in our politics.
As Jonathan Last and Michael Warren pointed out on a Weekly Standard podcast, the hatred aimed at Ryan, and also people like Marco Rubio, from the Left stems from the fact that Ryan and Rubio defy the strawman the Left so desperately wants to have as an enemy. How dare they be thoughtful and compassionate! How dare they be young and attractive! By what right do they make serious arguments for conservative policies! To paraphrase Steve Martin in The Jerk, they listen to their serious responses to journalists’ questions, and scream at the Maître d’, “This isn’t what we ordered! Now bring me those toasted cheesy gaffes you talked us out of!”
Beyond the brass-tacks punditry on the significance of Ryan’s retirement — what this means for the midterms, etc. — there is a deeper historical and political significance. I’ve been saying for a couple years now that conservatism, stripped of prudential, traditional, and dogmatic adornment, boils down to simply two things: The idea that character matters and the idea that ideas matter. Stripped of the compromises Ryan made and the decisions he was forced into, Ryan’s career boils down to modeling these two things. He is a man of deeply decent character, and he’s a man that cares deeply about the importance of ideas. Did he fall short of the ideal? Of course. Who hasn’t?
There’s a reason Bill Rusher’s favorite psalm was, “Put not your faith in princes.”
Politicians are flawed not only because of the incentive structure that is inherent to their jobs but also because, to borrow a phrase from social science, they’re people.
(Pat Moynihan had his flaws. You could set up a bowling alley using his weekly allotment of wine bottles as the pins. He wrote like a liberal-leaning neocon intellectual, but he voted like a ward-heeling Irish politician.)
The fact that Paul Ryan was a man out of place in his own party says far more about the state of the GOP than it does about the man. Consider this week alone:
A president who cheated on his first wife with his second and “allegedly” cheated on his third with a porn star is tweeting that Jim Comey is a “slimeball.”The president’s personal PR team over at Hannity HQ is calling Robert Mueller the head of a crime family.The CBO just announced that we’re in store for trillion-dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see.The president is tweeting taunts about how his missiles are shinier toys than Putin’s.The president’s nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, a once passionate and thoughtful defender of Congress’s sole right to authorize war, is now invoking law-review articles as justification for a president’s right to wage war on a whim.The president’s lawyer’s office was raided by the FBI (not Bob Mueller’s team, by the way) after getting a warrant from a judge and following all of the onerous protocols of the Justice Department, and the former speaker of the House — and avowed historian — is insisting that the Cohen and Manafort raids are morally equivalent to the tactics of Stalin and Hitler. I’m pretty sure the Gestapo didn’t have “clean teams” to protect attorney-client privilege (particularly of dudes named “Cohen”), and last I checked the KGB wasn’t big on warrants.On Monday evening, the president convened a televised war council and spent the first ten minutes sputtering about how outraged he was by an inquiry into a pay-off of his porn-star paramour.And people are shocked that Paul Ryan isn’t comfortable in Washington?
Steve Hayes is right that Ryan was “always more a creature of the conservative movement than of GOP politics. His departure punctuates the eclipse of that movement within the party.”
The GOP will never be the same. We’ve known this instinctively for a while. But Ryan’s departure removes all doubt. He was too good for the job — and the party.