There will be a few conservative dead-enders who try to find some measure of honor, or perverse hope, in Paul Ryan’s decision to quit not just the speakership but the House as well at the end of his last miserable term in a chamber to which he has devoted a political lifetime.
Don’t fall for it.
Ryan is leaving in shame after playing every card wrong in a high-stakes game where—despite his tepid protestations—the Wisconsinite ended up playing the pivotal role in creating the crisis that is Donald Trump’s presidency. Ryan could, as the supposed adult in the room, have stood up to Trump the candidate and to Trump the president. Instead, he failed to respond as anything more than a sycophantic yes man.
Ryan’s decision to stand down is an awful end for a political careerist who came to Capitol Hill the better part of 30 years ago and began running for Congress in his native southeastern Wisconsin district more than 20 years ago.
Ryan’s career intersected with history at many points. But it will be recalled not for the highlights but for his fateful decision to join Trump on the low road.
No one was more responsible for the political advancement of Donald Trump than Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House and the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee who was supposedly the embodiment of responsible Republicanism when the billionaire launched his presidential bid in 2015.
Ryan’s steadfast refusal to reject Trump’s candidacy—even as the Wisconsin Republican griped about the New Yorker’s extreme statements—sent a signal that Trump was acceptable to party elites. Ryan’s party-over-principles position provided essential aid and comfort to Trump throughout the campaign, and the speaker proved to be even more loyal after Trump was sworn in January 20, 2017.
This loyalty has come at an enormous cost—to a nation that is experiencing political chaos on an unprecedented level, to a Congress that has abandoned its constitutional duty to check and balance an out-of-control and frequently lawless presidency, and to a Republican Party that Ryan once sought to lead.
Ryan’s decision to forgo what was shaping up as a difficult reelection run at home in Wisconsin—where Democrats Randy Bryce, a union activist whose candidacy had drawn national attention and endorsements, and Janesville school-board member Cathy Myers have been competing for the chance to challenge the speaker—and an even more difficult effort to retain GOP control of the House, is an acknowledgement of the catastrophe.
It is also a tacit admission that his once-promising career has been ruined by popular recognition of his inability to lead—or even function—in the shadow of Trump and Trumpism.
Ryan begins his political exit as a man whose reputation has been ravaged by his own missteps and misdeeds. His willingness to collaborate with Trump in order to advance the corporate agenda that has always been at the heart of Ryan’s “service”—from tax cuts to deregulation to assaults on the Affordable Care Act and social-welfare programs of all kinds—has ruined Ryan.
From the beginning of Trump’s tenure, Ryan’s approval ratings have been tumbling. As long ago as last summer, a YouGov/Economist poll put disapproval of Ryan at over 50 percent, while less than a third of Americans actually approved of the job the speaker was doing.
It was just as bad in Wisconsin, where Ryan’s yes-man act rendered him less popular than the president he was serving.
A fall 2017 Public Policy Polling survey of Wisconsin voters found that 40 percent approved of Trump, while 52 percent disapprove. Ryan’s approval rating was at just 35 percent, while his 51 percent disapproval rating paralleled that of the president.
That means that, while Trump was down 12 points in the approval-versus-disapproval measure, Ryan was down 16 points.
Ryan and his allies thought a round of tax cuts might make things better—or, at least, a little easier. But there was no correcting the course of the ship the speaker had climbed aboard.
So now he has chosen to abandon it.
Ryan will survive. He is a son of privilege with many connections in Washington and on Wall Street. But his party and his country have been severely damaged by Ryan’s continual compromising of principles and practicalities. And his refusal to fight for their honor and their future will earn him a tragic footnote in the history of these troubled times.