John M Ellis is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars.
Everyone knows that a competent lawyer never asks a question in court to which he doesn’t already know the answer. And likewise, a competent political leader never puts a piece of legislation up for a vote without having a good idea of what the vote will be. But when Paul Ryan released his American Health Care Act he evidently had no idea what its reception would be. Whole sections of his own party were angered, and it was obvious that his bill had no chance of passage without truly major changes.
Why didn’t Ryan know all of that before he published the bill? A skilled leader sounds out the major opinion centers in his party to get a sense of what it will take to get them all on board, so that by the time the bill is published he knows where everyone stands and how they will vote. By going public with his bill before ascertaining the lay of the land, Ryan has created an ugly rift within his party, delayed and endangered the forward movement of the Trump administration, and further alienated a GOP base which has long been exasperated by the ineffectiveness of its congressional leaders. But Paul Ryan’s political incompetence is by now a very old story.
As the 2016 primary election season was about to begin, Ryan negotiated with the Obama administration an omnibus budget bill once more without bothering to find out what his party would and would not accept. And so he was surprised to find that his Republicans were more than disappointed: they were furious. His agreement funded almost every hot button issue that Obama was desperate to have funded and Republicans were just as determined not to fund: Obama’s illegal executive amnesty was funded, his Muslim refugee program funded, sanctuary cities funded, yet there was no money for a border fence. House Democrats were so delighted that 90% of them voted in favor of the agreement while only 60% of Republicans voted affirmatively, and many of those voted as they did not because they liked the deal, but because they didn’t want to humiliate a new leader. Simmering annoyance with a chronically passive and inept GOP congressional leadership became white hot anger. This may well have been the point at which Donald Trump’s winning the party nomination became inevitable. Ryan could not have done more to promote his candidacy.
Ryan’s own explanation of what he had done made things worse: he was excited at having secured the extension of some relatively circumscribed tax breaks—breaks applicable to particular business situations, not to the general public. In exchange for these he had given away everything his party’s voters cared deeply about. Ryan had demonstrated that he is a wonk and number-cruncher so focused on budgetary detail that he loses sight of political reality: he is politically tone-deaf.