Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostEverything | Perspective

Saving Speaker Ryan?

The degree to which Paul Ryan has prostrated himself is remarkable.

March 7, 2018 at 8:15 AM

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On March 6, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Republicans disagree with President Trump's approach of imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, suggesting the U.S. should focus precisely on the "abusers" to avoid retaliation. (Reuters)

Fourteen months ago, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan made a promise at a CNN town hall to a DREAMer: “House Speaker Paul Ryan strongly suggested to her that the revocation of protections for the ‘dreamers’ brought here as children will not be carried out.” Here’s a video clip:

Two days ago, the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg opened her article about Ryan with the following anecdote:

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a fierce believer in America as a land of immigrants, recently attended a dinner party with a so-called Dreamer. When she pleaded with him to help young undocumented immigrants like herself gain legal status, he hesitated — the House, he said, would pass only legislation that President Trump would sign.

This is hardly the only example of Ryan’s evolution from disagreement to deference when it comes to President Trump’s political agenda. As Nicholas Fandos of the New York Times reports, Ryan has refused to intercede in the dumpster fire that is the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This is despite the fact that GOP members of the committee were responsible for leaking information designed to attack Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.):

Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s Republican chairman, and Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat, were so perturbed by the leak that they demanded a rare meeting with Speaker Paul D. Ryan last month to inform him of their findings. They used the meeting with Mr. Ryan to raise broader concerns about the direction of the House Intelligence Committee under its chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, the officials said….

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ryan, released a statement after this article was published, saying, “The speaker heard the senators on their concerns and encouraged them to take them up directly with their counterparts.”

In his meeting with the senators, Mr. Ryan told them that he did not run the committee himself, the officials briefed on the encounter said.

Politico’s Kyle Cheney confirmed the Times story, noting, “Ryan has largely taken a hands-off approach … deferring to committee leaders to resolve confrontations with the FBI and, more recently, with the Senate.”

It was therefore news this week when Ryan voiced modest dissent with something another important Republican had said. He disagreed with the president on the proposed steel and aluminum tariffs, asking Trump to “take a more surgical approach” to avoid “unintended consequences.”

Even here, however, Ryan’s rebellion appears to be extremely limited. According to my Post colleagues Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey, Ryan told “members in a closed-door meeting not to bully Trump on the decision. He said it could backfire and make things even worse.”

Ryan’s deference may be based on pragmatism, as some of Ryan’s defenders said to Stolberg. And Business Insider’s Josh Barro is correct to point out that GOP members in Congress are in a lose-lose position in challenging Trump on the tariffs. If they challenge Trump on the tariffs, they split their base before the midterms on an issue that divides them. If they acquiesce, “Republicans will be in a tough position to argue against [Democrat political] attacks, since they’ve already admitted the policy is a mistake.”

Now is normally the time when the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would bolster a counterintuitive defense of Ryan’s speakership. His margin is narrow and leadership requires followership and yada yada yada, Ryan is a wonk’s wonk and a decent human being.

I can’t do it. Sometimes there are battles worth fighting and losing, because otherwise you lose yourself. Sure, Ryan finally got a budget-busting tax cut that he’s been dreaming about for years. Honestly, however, there are too many instances during the Trump presidency in which Ryan has done nothing.

Of course a GOP legislative leader would be expected to work closely with a GOP president. The degree to which Ryan has prostrated himself to the cause of … what, exactly? A unified GOP caucus? A president who articulates positions on immigration, trade, foreign policy, that are at variance with Ryan? A president whose rhetoric debased the national discourse on a daily basis?

Why, exactly, is Paul D. Ryan being so quiet? What does he hope to accomplish at this point? I don’t know. I would love to hear from someone who does.

At this point, I do not blame Donald Trump for thinking that he can bully all of Washington. Paul Ryan is every bully’s dream. Some might call it pragmatic politics. I call it cowardice.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

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