In a written statement announcing that U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan won’t seek reelection this year, his longtime adviser Brendan Buck said:
“After nearly twenty years in the House, the speaker is proud of all that has been accomplished and is ready to devote more of his time to being a husband and a father.
“While he did not seek the position, he told his colleagues that serving as speaker has been the professional honor of his life, and he thanked them for the trust they placed in him.”
The political reality is less noble. One can hardly imagine a more obvious signal that Ryan fears the prospect, if not of losing his own seat, than of losing the majority and hence his speakership.
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In the past, speakers – understanding the demoralizing impact that premature white-flag-waving would have on their troops – had the good sense to wait until after the election to announce they would exit party leadership. Ryan’s move has several consequences.
First, Democrats (who were heavily spending to defeat Ryan) can declare victory in that race and save the money it would have taken to knock out a sitting speaker. Get ready for Democrats’ taunts that Ryan lacked the courage to stand before voters with a record like his.
Second, this is a flashing light to donors and candidates on both sides. For Republican money-men, the message is: Don’t throw away cash trying to save the House.
For Democrats, it is further encouragement to add to the record number of candidates and to get on board for a party sweep. In a wave year with the GOP leaderless, why not throw your hat into the ring?
Third, this will be seen in some quarters as a sign that Ryan cannot bear defending President Trump from potential impeachment. It has been a chore to act as Trump’s lead apologist, ignoring his outbursts and justifying his zigzags.
Trump is now going down a protectionist road that Ryan deeply opposes. As much as this is a sign of no confidence in his House majority, it is effectively an admission: “I can’t take it anymore!”
Fourth, it is highly unlikely that Trump is going to deliver any more items on the GOP domestic wish-list. With tax cuts under his belt, Trump shows little interest or ability to proceed with arduous negotiations on infrastructure, health-care fixes, entitlements or much of anything else.
Trump surely is not going to abandon his base to push for comprehensive immigration reform. Ryan seems to agree with our analysis that the GOP has gotten whatever it is going to get from this president.
Fifth, Ryan’s departure makes his refusal to remove from committees characters such as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. – who colluded with the White House in smearing the FBI and wrecking the intelligence-oversight system – all the more inexplicable.
Why not take the heat to do the right thing, especially if Ryan is not going to run anyway? The lack of political courage still stuns onlookers who regarded Ryan at one time as a genuine policy wonk and serious leader.
In sum, Ryan retreats from the scene after loading the country up with debt and leaving virtually every agenda item save tax cuts undone.
He fantasized that in backing Trump, who lacks conservative principles (or any principles), he’d have carte blanche to enact the entire GOP agenda.
He made his Faustian bargain on the false assumption that Trump would take direction from House Republicans and demonstrate enough discipline to get through a slew of initiatives.
That did not come to pass because Ryan, in making his disastrous decision to place party over country and corporate tax cuts over defense of democratic values, failed to comprehend the depth of Trump’s unfitness and the centrality of character in determining a president’s success.
Instead of achieving the entire GOP agenda, Ryan will leave a besmirched legacy defined by his decision to back, enable and defend Trump, no matter how objectionable Trump’s rhetoric and conduct.
The inability to separate partisan loyalty from patriotic obligation – or to assess the interests of the country and the need to defend democratic norms and institutions – is proving to be the downfall of the Republican Party and the principle threat to our liberal (small “l”) democracy.
And no one is more responsible for this than Ryan. No one.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.