The Paul Ryan story: A tragedy
Finally, House Speaker Paul Ryan edged President Donald Trump out of the nation’s attention.
The Wisconsin Republican’s astonishing announcement that he would not seek another term rocked Washington in a way that almost nothing Trump has done, said, threatened or tweeted.
Of course, Ryan’s decision was prompted in large measure by Trump, the planet in the political solar system that has warped the orbit of all the other heavenly bodies. In the Jimmy Carter years, House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. was a major power center. In the Ronald Reagan years, O’Neill and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole retained enormous power and attracted substantial attention. In the Trump years, no one on Capitol Hill — indeed, no one in the White House — has power that even approaches that in a presidency that breaks every rule, shatters every tradition, fractures every customary capital relationship.
For Ryan, there were few rewards in occupying a job that once carried the title “czar” only to find himself feeling like an apparatchik. It was mortifying to watch his profile slide from visionary to victim, a status his facial expression and drooping shoulders constantly revealed.
Speed back to 2012 and recall the reaction when former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the Republican presidential nominee, selected Ryan as his running mate. By edging out former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and former Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana — steady, accomplished, mature figures with bona fides outside politics such as medicine and industry — Ryan emerged as the face of the Republican future. When he made his announcement Wednesday, it was incontrovertible that his (drawn and fatigued) face made it clear he now was the battered standard-bearer of a distant Republican past.
The Paul Ryan story is a tragedy in multiple dimensions.
The first is personal. No matter how much he talks about remaining part of the national debate, the word “former” will always precede his name.
Then there is the public tragedy. Many conservatives believed Ryan — intelligent, creative, committed — would be a counterpoint to the president, or at least a checkpoint for the president. Neither happened. Trump waded into several legislative areas with the grudging and spare advice of the speaker. This never was a partnership — and Ryan was the repository of resentment from those on the right, and a few on the left, who expected the speaker to speak up.
Finally, there is the civic tragedy. While Ryan was steeped in the conservative philosophical and economic thinking of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, Trump almost certainly could not describe their views with any authority.
Moreover, while the president may have the best political instincts of any chief executive since Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, he lacks the institutional political skills of those men, who cumulatively sat in gubernatorial chairs for almost two decades and had between them six presidential campaigns.
Much has been made of the political effect of the Ryan recision decision. The instant analysis was that it was a symbol of Republican hopelessness months before the midterm congressional elections. In that regard, it is a confirmation of conventional thought rather than an alteration of it.
Republicans may still retain a slight advantage as November approaches, but they are clearly on the defensive and in danger of losing their House majority.
The Ryan decision puts even more emphasis, and pressure, on Senate races, which are more complicated, more expensive and more visible than House contests. The GOP majority in the upper chamber is 51-49.
With an unpredictable, unconventional and unusually volatile president in the White House — and with vital issues such as immigration, health care and entitlement overhaul begging for attention — few midterm congressional elections in modern time have loomed as quite so consequential.
Ryan was expected to — perhaps was born to — deal with all three of those questions, all of which he has examined with unusual depth. Now he is in retreat and nearly in retirement. But he finally has done what his supporters have yearned for. He has captured the nation’s attention, though not necessarily its admiration.