A time to pay attention

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow recently closed an episode of her show with this thought: “When politics goes right in a well-run country, citizens do not have to think much about their government and about the responsibilities of citizenship.” Pausing briefly, for effect, she continued: “The contrary is also true. This is a time to be sober, be calm, and to be paying attention.”

A striking example of the dysfunctions that Maddow had in mind is the ignominious departure of House speaker Paul Ryan, who recently announced that he will not seek re-election in November. Ryan entered Congress nearly twenty years ago as a fresh-faced old-style Conservative and he was quickly identified as a star. A true believer in Ayn Rand and the tax-relief fundamentalism of Grover Norquist – particularly when the taxes in question relieved the wealthiest Americans – Ryan was a leading advocate of some of the GOP’s sternest doctrines, and knew how to talk them up with an air of sweet reasonableness.

When he debated Joe Biden in an October 2012 vice-presidential debate it began to seem that his reach might exceed his grasp. The avuncular Biden skewered several of Ryan’s talking points with inconvenient facts. When, for instance, Ryan set out the Republican position as: “Don’t raise the deficit, don’t raise taxes on the middle class and don’t lower the share of income that is borne by the high-income earners.” Biden countered with: “Let’s look at how sincere they are … Governor Romney on ‘60 Minutes’ … was asked, ‘Governor, you pay 14 per cent (income tax rate) on $20 million (income). Someone making $50,000 pays (a higher rate) than that. Do you think that’s fair?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, that’s fair.’”

That self-serving idea of ‘fairness’ has combined with an increasingly amoral opportunism inside the GOP for nearly two decades. Consequently, when candidate Trump – who distilled both qualities to their essence – first looked like a contender for the presidency, senior figures like Ryan declined several opportunities to repudiate him. Beneath Trump’s bluster they correctly sensed a chance to overturn the status quo and to eliminate, or drastically reduce, welfare measures such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps.

Initially, their obsequiousness seemed to pay off. Trump’s victory presented the party with the chance to unwind Obama’s legacy and impose an economic vision of their own. When pressed to deliver the long-awaited alternative to Obamacare, however, Ryan could offer little more than dither with a few piecemeal reforms. A Washington Post editorial described his counterproposal as “flimsy” and “less detailed in a variety of crucial ways than previous conservative health reform proposals.” The few details available suggested that the new plan “would be hard on the poor, old and sick.” The legislative mayhem that ensued scuttled any hope of genuine reform.

Instead of offering any of their promised remedies to the supposed overreach of the federal government, Republicans have followed President Trump into a reflexive and often mindless contrarianism, ballooning the deficit, constantly flirting with another government shutdown, apparently incapable of reining him in on any aspect of domestic or foreign policy.  Commenting on Ryan’s descent into this abyss, the political historian E J Dionne recently noted that. “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 suspected involvement in a payoff to a porn star and potential entanglements with Russian interference in our election.” But that is exactly where it has taken him.

After years of telling people to bootstrap themselves out of difficult situations, Ryan has instead chosen to shirk his most basic duties as a political representative. His spineless exit will likely cement his reputation, in Dionne’s telling phrase, as “an enabler for the most morally indifferent and utterly selfish president in our nation’s history.” American conservatives love to misquote Edmund Burke to the effect that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Yet, now that they find themselves bound to a proudly ignorant president whose grasp of governance and policy is as shaky as his commitment to Conservatism, men like Ryan have chosen to pass on the responsibility and the blame to someone else – to the citizens, Rachel Maddow might say.

The seemingly endless political confusion in Washington has many echoes in British and European politics. Collectively these should be taken as a warning to younger, less developed democracies like our own. Ambitious politicians come and go and many distort or discard their political agendas rather than cede power. When their idealism fades, or it they can no longer pretend to have made progress in their supposed areas of expertise, they often retire early into comfortable private lives. Unfortunately, those affected by the long series of bungled initiatives that they leave behind rarely have the same option.

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