More than a decade ago, a young Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.) swooped into the House Budget Committee, talons extended. Even before he ascended to committee chairman in 2011, the hardcore hawk had already drafted functional legislation to replace Medicare with vouchers. He was going to privatize Social Security! There were tax cuts balanced by huge cuts to discretionary spending! He gave his interns copies of Atlas Shrugged and slept in his office to save taxpayers money! His reputation as a wonk preceded him and he rose high, gliding on the updrafts of the Tea Party movement.
But as the 115th Congress comes to a close, Ryan is slinking out the door like a trod-upon rattlesnake. The speaker of the House declined to seek re-election, an unusual move for a man at the height of his congressional powers. The announcement of his departure checked all the boxes of a political life well-lived: generic remarks about spending more time with his family, a valedictory tweet from the president about "a legacy of achievement no one can question," even an official portrait to unveil. But it rang hollow.
Ryan sought power and won it, but it came at a high cost. There is every reason to believe he compromised time and time again because he genuinely hoped to use his power to achieve the meaningful goals he arrived with so many years ago. He came close to attaining the summit, picking up the party's vice presidential nod in 2012 under former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But there's simply no getting around the fact that he never did get to the payoff. Annual deficits spiked on Ryan's watch, going from $430 billion when he took the gavel in 2015 to almost $1 trillion now. He also voted for nearly every meaningful expansion of the scope of the federal government (with their associated opportunities to spend more money) other than the Affordable Care Act, including No Child Left Behind, the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the PATRIOT Act, and more. He did deliver on tax cuts, but without any of the attendant reforms to entitlements or spending that he so carefully paired them with as a younger, more optimistic man.
"On health care itself and debt and deficits," he said at an event hosted by The Washington Post at the end of November, "it's the one that got away." He also regretted not getting an immigration deal done, he admitted. He's not the only one.
On the other side of the Capitol rotunda an alternate version of this story was unfolding, starring Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.). In October 2017, he also announced he would not seek re-election, but in a far more pointed way: "The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I'm not willing to take, and that I can't in good conscience take. It would require me to believe in positions I don't hold on such issues as trade and immigration, and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone."
Flake then went on to infuriate nearly everyone on his way out the door by standing on both principle and ceremony as it suited him. He threatened to withhold his vote on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination before eventually relenting and voting with his party. President Donald Trump called him "toxic," and weeping sexual assault activists cornered him in an elevator. Even among those who do not appreciate them, Flake's antics have mostly been correctly read as the senator following his conscience. But some see it as unorthodox positioning (read: showboating) for a 2020 challenge to Trump.
Flake's record isn't spotless either. His hobbyhorse was always eliminating earmarks, and he religiously kept up that drumbeat. He stuck by controversial votes against disaster relief as well. He fought the party powers that be on immigration and on portions of the PATRIOT Act. But keeping peace with his party required "yes" votes on decidedly nonlibertarian attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions and on foreign adventurism in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Flake's elections were brutal, with small margins and fierce rhetoric.
The toll from those compromise votes and hard-fought campaigns seemed to show on his face. At times, the weary, rumpled Flake was like the portrait Paul Ryan kept in his attic.
Then there's Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Republican who has done two stints in the House, with a period as governor (and national laughingstock) in between. Sanford does not go along to get along. Early in his career, he was already making enemies of other Republicans: In 1999, Sanford and pal Tom Coburn (R–Okla.) shut down floor debate over a lardy appropriations bill against the express wishes of their own party leadership.
As South Carolina governor, Sanford discovered some accounting trickery that was allowing pork barrel spending to sneak into the budget. In response, he brought two piglets to a press conference in 2004. "With cameras rolling and lawmakers and lobbyists gaping," Columbia's The State reported, "Sanford stood just outside the House chambers, pigs wriggling under his arms, pig feces on his jacket and shoes, and criticized House members for burying pork-barrel projects in the budget."
In 2013, Sanford unexpectedly and semi-triumphantly returned to Congress after a short political exile that followed—though was not directly caused by—a high-profile international extramarital affair. He won his campaign that year without the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
In the end, Sanford got primaried. Booted by a Trump-backed candidate. The president called him "a nasty guy" on the way out, tweeting, "I have never been a fan of his." It will be cold comfort for Sanford to see a Democrat take that seat in January, as he largely went along with Trump's GOP on policy, though he parted ways with the president on tone and rhetoric—something he made no secret about.
Three congressional Republicans walk away from the Capitol. Their stories are different, but they started in the same place: with a genuine commitment to principles of limited government. And now all three are taking their ideology and going home.
Each of these men, in his own way, is a lesson in how politicians will inevitably break your heart. They either stick to their guns and lose, or they compromise until they eventually can't take it anymore.
Folks on the far left are about to learn this same lesson. A small class of New Socialists is marching on the Hill with fire in its eyes as I write. But safe money says that even in the best-case scenario for them, by 2030 democratic socialist darling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) will be turning in her lapel pin, having ignominiously voted for massive military appropriations, messy entitlement legislation, and tax increases on the working class. Even the most lustily wielded sickles dull soon enough.
There are still some on the Hill fighting for limited government and budgetary sanity: Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, plus Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
In 2017, White House staff showed Donald Trump the famous "hockey stick" graph of national debt projections, according to the Daily Beast; noting that the spike would occur after the end of his hypothetical second term, he casually dismissed the problem, saying, "Yeah, but I won't be here then." Still, the president is not to blame for the federal government's lack of fiscal continence, no matter what Flake or Sanford say. Trump may have driven this batch of budget hawks out of the coop, but Republicans' utter lack of interest in economic discipline is the culmination of a long trend. Fiscal prudence remains a part of the GOP's DNA, but the trait is currently dormant.
A real budget reformer in the country's highest office could revive the prospects for reform—and perhaps generate more popular support. But hawks are solitary creatures. Ryan chose domestication, settling on Trump's glove and accepting scraps. Sanford wheeled and tried to peck the president's eyes out. Flake simply flew away, screeching.