The Paul Ryan story: A tragedy

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - David Shrib­man Colum­nist

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.

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