WASHINGTON — Strong voices guided Paul Ryan's political career, and in the end, drowned him out.
Ryan's announcement Wednesday that he would retire as House speaker at the age of 48 at the end of his current term came as no surprise in Washington. For the better part of two years, Ryan's brand of optimistic, inclusive yet budget-balancing conservatism had fallen deeply out of favor within a Republican Party enraptured by a dour, immigrant-bashing, budget-busting celebrity.
And now, Ryan's departure marks the final defeat of Jack Kemp conservatism at the hands of Donald Trump nationalism.
Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback turned Buffalo-area congressman and conservative visionary, served as the loudest voice guiding Ryan's early career. Ryan worked for Empower America, Kemp's 1990s attempt to spread his gospel while in the political wilderness. And Ryan seemed to mold himself after Kemp in both style and substance.
"I just wanted to learn from what I thought was the best economic mind in the conservative movement at the time, in the early '90s," Ryan said in a 2013 interview for the Jack Kemp Oral History Project. "What I guess I didn’t expect was how he would draw me so much into public service as a vocation that I ended up going into politics myself, basically as a result of the mentorship that he gave me and the example he set.”
Like Kemp, Ryan entered every room with a smile and a handshake. And given a chance to speak, Ryan, like Kemp, came alive with proposals that stemmed from one foundational idea: that conservatism is for everyone and that it can help everyone.
For proof, witness how Kemp and his protege talked about immigration.
“We are going to make sure that America is open to legal immigration because that is wealth and the talent and the entrepreneurial skills for the 21st Century,” Kemp once said.
Similarly, Ryan said in that 2013 interview: "Immigration, by the way, is a good thing for America. Immigrants don’t come simply to consume welfare benefits. They come in search of a better life, and the American idea and upward mobility. These are all Republican values."
That's just one example of the parallels in the two men's careers. Kemp, as housing secretary, pushed "enterprise zones" aimed at spurring investment in poor neighborhoods; Ryan, in his 2014 anti-poverty plan, proposed "opportunity grants" to states that would do much the same thing.
But as Kemp's career waned and Ryan's began, broadcasters came to realize that outrage could be monetized. And soon much louder voices, with far greater reach than most politicians, came to dominate the Republican conversation.
First came radio rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh, spewing political incorrectness to an audience estimated at more than 13 million weekly, saying things that no doubt would have rattled both Kemp and Ryan.
Things like: "The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons," as well as the notion that a conciliatory approach to immigration would lead to "the marginalization, if not the destruction, of the Republican Party."
Then came Fox News and hosts such as Sean Hannity, who offers a decidedly different worldview to his 3 million nightly viewers than Kemp – who died in 2009 – or Ryan ever would.
"Halloween is a liberal holiday because we're teaching our children to beg for something for free. … We're teaching kids to knock on other people's doors and ask for a handout," Hannity once said.
Add to that Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham and Bill O'Reilly and local talkers like Tom Bauerle. Together the right-wing talkers paved the way for a Republican presidential candidate who sold outrage just like they did: Donald Trump.
And suddenly Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, seemed quaint, if not obsolete.
Trump bashed immigrants and took harsh action against them and Ryan acquiesced. Trump took a hands-off approach to talks that produced a budget that will create trillion dollar deficits and Ryan – always a budget hawk – went along with it all.
Not surprisingly, then, Ryan looked defeated on Wednesday as he bowed out, as they all say, to spend more time with his family.
Ryan lauded the tax overhaul that he helped Congress produce last year and insisted that he "achieved a heck of a lot" in two and a half years as speaker.
"I'm grateful to the president," Ryan said, one way or another, four times at a press conference where he never mentioned Kemp once.
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