Ryan: re­mem­bered for his sub­mis­sion to Trump

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION -

Some politi­cians fit their era per­fectly; oth­ers are born out of their time. Don­ald Trump is the mas­ter of his low, cruel, dis­hon­est mo­ment. Re­tir­ing House Speaker Paul Ryan, in­spired by Ronald Rea­gan by way of Jack Kemp, has been lost and dis­ori­ented. His ca­reer-end­ing con­fronta­tion with Trump rep­re­sents the end of a more hope­ful and hu­mane era. Ryan’s exit is fur­ther ev­i­dence that the GOP’s dark side has won. For now.

Tak­ing his ca­reer as a whole, Ryan has been the heir of Kemp in many of the good ways without the bad. “He has been the last of the cheer­ful con­ser­va­tives,” ob­serves Na­tional Af­fairs’ Yu­val Levin, “an im­mi­gra­tion op­ti­mist, a growth and op­por­tu­nity sup­ply-sider, gen­uinely con­cerned about the poor and dis­ad­van­taged.” Un­like Kemp, Ryan un­der­stood mas­sive pub­lic debt as an un­con­scionable bur­den on the fu­ture, and sup­ported longterm en­ti­tle­ment re­form that would have shifted bur­dens to Ryan’s own gen­er­a­tion for the ben­e­fit of gen­er­a­tions that fol­low.

But the mis­match of Ryan and his times has been in­creas­ingly ev­i­dent and un­sus­tain­able. He has tried to be aspirational in a party grown gloomy and an­gry. He has a moder­ate tem­per­a­ment in a party lurch­ing to­ward dis­turb­ing ex­tremes. He has re­mained a 1980s sup­ply-sider in a very dif­fer­ent econ­omy — mean­ing that his cul­mi­nat­ing achieve­ment, the 2017 tax cut, was the last gasp of old Repub­li­can eco­nomic think­ing rather than the start of some­thing new. Ryan’s more wel­com­ing at­ti­tude to­ward im­mi­grants has been re­pu­di­ated by the base of his party.

And Ryan trag­i­cally miscalculated in his re­la­tion­ship with Trump.

Ryan’s bet on co­op­er­a­tion was not ir­ra­tional. He clearly thought Trump could be ap­peased, man­aged, stroked and flat­tered into ir­rel­e­vance while the real work of con­ser­va­tive gover­nance could go for­ward in Congress. It of­ten fell to the speaker to call the pres­i­dent with ex­pla­na­tions of the pres­i­dent’s own pol­icy po­si­tions. Ryan de­cided to join the staff of adult daycare. Rather than alien­at­ing Trump, he would try to ig­nore the in­sane tweet du jour and fo­cus on do­ing his job.

In prac­tice, this meant ig­nor­ing the pri­mary way that Trump com­mu­ni­cates with the coun­try, the world, Congress and his own White House staff. It made Ryan seem dis­con­nected from po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity and com­plicit in out­rage af­ter out­rage. His si­lence was taken as per­mis­sion or cow­ardice.

Ryan’s bet was not winnable. Trump’s slav­ery to im­pulse makes man­ag­ing him an im­pos­si­ble task. The pres­i­dent’s ag­gres­sive ig­no­rance on is­sues such as health care has con­sis­tently com­pli­cated the leg­isla­tive process. In fact, Trump has pub­licly and per­son­ally at­tacked many Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors and of­ten used the GOP­con­trolled Congress as a po­lit­i­cal foil. All this has got­ten worse over time, as the pres­i­dent has be­come more ac­cus­tomed to power and less tol­er­ant of dis­sent. In Trump, a to­tal lack of gov­ern­ing skill is now matched with com­plete con­fi­dence in his own in­stincts.

God help us. Clearly, Ryan could not. The speaker, like many oth­ers, un­der­es­ti­mated the power of the pres­i­dency to shape and de­fine the GOP. Trump’s in­flu­ence is now per­va­sive. Given the base’s en­thu­si­asm for Trump, many elected Repub­li­cans now feel they must choose between hypocrisy and po­lit­i­cal sui­cide. There is a third choice: Leave pol­i­tics en­tirely. I sus­pect Ryan is not the last Repub­li­can who will ex­er­cise this op­tion.

Taken in iso­la­tion, many of Ryan’s de­ci­sions to avoid con­fronta­tion with the pres­i­dent made po­lit­i­cal sense. Taken to­gether, they lead to a sad con­clu­sion. We needed Ryan to re­sist Trump’s norm bust­ing, his strat­egy of de­hu­man­iza­tion, his as­sault on in­sti­tu­tions, his thinly veiled racism, his trash­ing of our civic cul­ture. We needed Ryan to be a voice of con­science in the age of Trump. And he re­fused to play that role.

It is hard to fault a man for fail­ing to be a hero. But Ryan will not be judged by his­tory for his agenda of tax cuts, in­creased mil­i­tary spend­ing and dereg­u­la­tion. He will be re­mem­bered as the Repub­li­can leader who could not pre­vent Don­ald Trump’s to­tal takeover of the GOP. In many ways, Ryan was the best of his party. It was not nearly enough.

Michael Ger­son michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com

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