In a town where character is often not seen as important, it is striking that even his many Washington foes accept that retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a good man. He could scarcely be less personally like our current President. Ryan has long been animated by a love of family, the outdoors and ideas, making him not likely to be soul mates with the 45th President.
However, there is a final way these two very different men part ways, one that underlines the fact that the GOP under President Trump has abandoned any pretence to its modern Eisenhower Republican roots, and is now a very different nationalist-populist beast indeed.
For Speaker Ryan was the last Eisenhower Republican standing, the worthy heir to Ike, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Herbert Walker Bush. All four were instinctive internationalists, seeing that a dominant America must craft and defend a global order that was largely created by America in its image. This was not done for altruism, but for the profound realist notion that as the great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, every man is a conservative after dinner.
America’s internationalism meant that shared security and prosperity would make many of the other great nations of the earth America’s allies, stakeholders in the efforts to perpetuate a US-dominated order. The remnants of this splendid farsighted foreign policy can still be seen today, as unlike China, the US (despite President Trump’s best efforts) still has global allies such as the UK, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and recently India, committed to perpetuating the present American-inspired system as they have done well out of it. This amounts to a geopolitical treasure beyond rubies, and is partly the result of the enlightened internationalism of Eisenhower Republicans of the past.
Likewise, free trade was seen as the lifeblood flowing through this system, as trade spread prosperity, leading to enhanced global stability. Eisenhower Republicans favoured President Obama’s ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as it meant the US and its allies (and not Beijing) would set the regional trading rules in our new era and that the increased prosperity the TPP would bring over time would bind a more stable and confident rest of Asia into an American-dominated alliance, particularly with a more threatening China next door.
Ryan again confirmed his Eisenhower Republican credentials, early on rather bravely fighting for President Obama to be given Trade Promotion Authority so he could negotiate TPP in the first place. President Trump’s know-nothing rejection of this key policy plank of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ must be seen by Eisenhower Republicans as nothing less than a grave self-inflicted wound for the US.
As for domestic economics, the Speaker was critically in line with Eisenhower’s emphasis that federal balanced budgets were a sign of the overall fiscal health of the nation. While a yearning for tax cuts was a constant theme of his political life, Ryan has also long advocated root and branch entitlement reform, at least partially so America could balance its books. There is no doubt at all that the Speaker fit easily into the Eisenhower Republican fold, with his internationalist, pro-free trade, balanced-budget outlook.
Trump as nemesis for Eisenhower Republicanism
That is what makes his utter failure and early retirement so galling. While foreign policy was never his strong suit, the Speaker has had only the most tepid response to the current White House taking an axe to the US’s long-established alliance system, the guarantor of the present American-inspired world order. A free trader all his life, Ryan meekly quibbled with the President over his plan to put NAFTA in peril by re-negotiating a wildly successful trade agreement, while noting Canada was not a perfect trade partner (no one is). He was even worse over TPP, throwing his free trading history out the window and cheering on Trump’s lunacy.
The Trump tax reform gave Ryan his cherished tax cuts, but entitlement reform—the crucial other cause to which the Speaker has devoted his public life—is presently as dead as a doornail under this profligate President. And without budget cuts to offset tax cuts, Eisenhower Republicanism’s emphasis on balanced budgets is now very much a thing of the past.
There is no doubt that Paul is an is the worthy heir to the Eisenhower Republicanism that propelled the post-1945 party. But his many disappointments in the face of our current president merely underline that a once-proud internationalist, pro-free trade, pro-balanced budget party has morphed into something very different. The Republican Party has suffered an unfriendly takeover by Donald Trump and is now unilateralist, protectionist, and for profligate spending as far as the eye can see. Fully 86% of registered Republicans currently support Donald Trump.
In a real sense, it matters little whether decent Paul Ryan retires now or not; his party left him long ago. Speaking as an Eisenhower Republican myself, that is a tragedy.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. His latest book is, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, and is available on Amazon.