Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan thinks his old friend Kevin McCarthy may be better prepared for the role than any politician in modern history — but the job won’t be easy with his five-seat majority.
“It's gonna be torturous at times,” he said.
He’s also thrilled that Republicans want to tackle entitlements again, but sounds less enthusiastic about taking the debt ceiling hostage to go about it. He’s hoping a new book of policy proposals he just edited for the American Enterprise Institute will help pave the Republican party’s path away from unfocused Trumpism and back to the ideas-driven conservatism he tried to cultivate in office.
Semafor caught up with the former speaker on Thursday to talk about all those topics, the coming debt ceiling fight, and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Semafor: Speaker McCarthy just got through a very difficult vote. What are your expectations for his term as speaker? Do you think he and the Republican caucus can still be effective with this narrow majority?
Paul Ryan: I do. I think there are going to be areas where you find a bipartisan consensus. The China committee is just a perfect example. Ukraine is another one. Then there are going to be messaging bills. They just did that with the IRS bill. You're gonna have brinksmanship on a couple of these fiscal deadline-driven issues. It won't be pretty, but they'll get dealt with. And then the question is, after all this brinksmanship, can they get into a stride where they're building a coherent vision to take to the country so that the country is given a good clear choice in 2024.
Semafor: You were involved in the last big debt ceiling negotiations ...
Paul Ryan: Yeah, two or three of them.
Semafor: Are you more anxious now about the potential for a debt ceiling showdown to get out of hand compared to the past?
Paul Ryan: No, I’m really not worried about default. I think there are going to be a lot of fireworks. A lot of brinksmanship. I think it’s going to be a movie we’ve seen before. At the end of the day I’m not worried about our full faith and credit and I’m not worried about default.
Semafor: What about the debt ceiling rattling financial markets — is that something that you're concerned about?
Ryan: I think the markets are durable. And I think they will tolerate the spectacle that's going to come. And I think the markets will understand that at the end of the day, we'll make good on our bonds.
Semafor: What does an off-ramp look like then? Because it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear one.
Ryan: I’m not going to get into all that. I have opinions on all of those things but I don't want to undermine Kevin in the job he's got by speculating those things. I mean, I've got a pretty good theory of it all, but I'm gonna keep that one on myself.
Semafor: You were basically begged to be speaker after McCarthy failed to get support years ago. But you still had difficulty with rebels on your right flank on key votes. McCarthy has a smaller margin and even more rebels now. Is it manageable?
Ryan: It is. It's gonna be torturous at times because of the narrow margin. It's just, look, I did not have the margin Kevin has so it was so much easier for that. And yes, the circumstances of my speakership were very different than Kevin's. And that was probably my best asset, which is, everyone knew I didn't ask for the job and I didn't need to keep the job.
Semafor: You had to learn, like everyone else who assumed the speakership, on the job…
Ryan: I had to spring into action right away. Kevin's been working on this for years. So he is going to walk into this job better prepared than just about anybody who's taken this job in modern history.
Semafor: So what are the most useful lessons that you learned while speaker and have you relayed any of them to Speaker McCarthy?
Ryan: To truly be good at these jobs, you have to be willing to lose the jobs. And I think Kevin has gotten to the stage in life and career particularly now that he has this job that he understands these things.
Semafor: You think that McCarthy should be able to say he's willing to walk away from everything?
Ryan: Yeah. I think now that he's there, I think he understands there's a limit to how far you can be pushed. That's important, because if there is no limit, then people will just constantly push. Plus, he's got 200 people on his side.
But at the end of the day, you have to be willing to lose the job if you want to be good at these jobs. And you have to make sure that people have expectations set according to what you're able to accomplish and not something unachievable, which gets members, you know, with overly high expectations, and then they take it out on you when that doesn't materialize.
Semafor: Your book is full of ideas to reform Social Security and Medicare. Do you think entitlements should be on the table then for debt ceiling negotiations, or is that pushing it given the narrow majority and the politics around the issue?
Ryan: I come from the school of persuasion politics. So I believe you need to persuade people that your course of action is the right course of action so that you can win the argument, then you can win the vote, and then you can put the policy in place.
We’ve got a ways to go before we're there. What I like about all this debate today is it's around fiscal conservatism. It's around the fact that we're spending too much money. It's around the fact that we have a debt problem. Bringing attention to that issue is nothing but good. Getting a solution to that problem is going to take more than just leveraging one critical vote like a debt limit. It's going to take a lot of public education and it's going to take winning more elections, so that we have a governing majority to put things in place that save us from a debt crisis and a tearing of the social contract.
Semafor: So is there a solution to the debt crisis, as you put it, that does not include reforming Social Security and Medicare?
Ryan: There's no solution that doesn't include 70% of federal spending on autopilot that is the driver of our debt. So that's — there's just no two ways about it. And we should not be afraid of the politics of entitlement reform. But it takes time. You're not going to solve that under one particular vote, or one moment in time like the debt limit. That's the point I’m trying to make.
Semafor: When you were speaker under Trump, you raised the spending caps from the 2011 debt ceiling deal to add hundreds of billions in new spending. If Congress negotiated similar caps today, why wouldn't the same thing happen again in future?
Ryan: I negotiated those caps in the first place, which was Murray-Ryan back in 2011. I'm a huge fan of caps. We ran into vote count problems in those days. So I don't think you're gonna get — I mean I would love to have caps put in place in the Biden administration. My guess is they don't have the heart or stomach or wish to do that. I do think a comprehensive budget solution will invariably require caps. I don't know when we're going to get those, but that's something they should be shooting for in Congress.
Semafor: When you talk to people in the House, who do you think is most interested, most receptive to your style of fiscal conservatism and ideas?
Ryan: I don’t want to get them in trouble. I think Trump populism is waning because he's proven to be a loser. And I think something's going to replace it. And the question is, will it just be more sort of aimless populism or will it be principled populism focused on principles and ideas and policies? I think people in Congress are hungry for that.