photo by Gage Skidmore
I faced a conundrum this week when House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will not seek re-election: Although Ryan is a rare politician who can usually be taken at his word, my prime directive for dealing with officeholders is to ignore what they say and watch what they do.
In the end, primacy goes to the prime directive.
Either way, the Wisconsin Republican will leave office when his current term expires next January. We can bank on that. My inner conflict was over Ryan’s assertion that his departure does not reflect gloom over his party’s prospects in the coming midterm elections. Ryan said his departure is driven by his desire to spend more time with his family, especially his three teenage children. I don’t doubt this is true, but I don’t think it is the complete story either.
I think Ryan, who is pretty handy at math, calculated that the projected returns for his legislative efforts and personal sacrifices would be too meager in the coming years to justify the costs.
Ryan has been in Congress for two decades. Unlike many of his peers, he never sought the speakership or other higher office, although he said yes when Mitt Romney asked him to be his running mate in the 2012 presidential race. Otherwise, Ryan was content to chair first the House Budget Committee and later the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Although he is an observant Catholic and social conservative, his real interest has always been fiscal policy. He was, first and foremost, an unabashed wonk.
His party pretty much had to drag him into the speakership after conservative hardliners made former Rep. John Boehner miserable enough to quit. As speaker, Ryan managed to get an Affordable Care Act repeal bill through his chamber – barely – only to see it crushed by oversized GOP egos in the Senate.
Ryan had much better luck with the tax overhaul legislation that Congress enacted late last year, but that looks like it will be the apogee of his political arc unless he makes a comeback bid for the White House sometime down the line. Ryan’s major remaining interests are in entitlement reform, but that is a no-win situation right now. The president is not interested in fixing the long-term solvency problems of Social Security and Medicare, and neither is either party in Congress. While Medicaid is bleeding budgets dry at every level of government, its fate remains intimately bound to whatever future action – or inaction – happens regarding the Affordable Care Act.
So what was left for Ryan? Judging from the number of his fellow Republicans who are bailing from safe and vulnerable seats alike, internal polling shows that a Democratic takeover of the House is more likely than not. If that happens, Ryan would be left to lead a House minority that would have little policy influence.
At the same time, as leader of his party, Ryan would be expected to argue against the impeachment of President Donald Trump, which will be among the first orders of business for a Democratic House leadership. Ryan could make a principled argument that the alleged legal, as opposed to moral, offenses of the president are mere cover for an attempt to thwart the decision voters rendered in 2016. But just because he would be legally correct does not mean Ryan would relish coming to the defense of a man who is his opposite in almost every respect save party affiliation.
And if, somehow, the GOP retains its House majority, there is not much reason to believe the next two years will be more productive legislatively than the current session of Congress has proven to be. In terms of personal goals, Ryan has accomplished about as much as he can hope to do. There is a lot he could still do in terms of his party’s goals, but I can’t fault him for deciding that it is time for someone else to carry that load.
Ryan is exactly the sort of serious, principled Republican that most of my Democrat friends say they want to see. But they would never vote for him regardless. For most politically engaged Democrats, Ryan’s opposition to Roe v. Wade is an immediate deal-breaker. Beyond that, he is a small-government, free-enterprise, grow-the-pie sort of guy, and theirs is a big-government, socialist-leaning, zero-sum sort of philosophy. There are few serious, studious, intellectually open and respectful people at the top levels of American politics these days. I am really sorry to see Ryan quit, but I can’t say I blame him.