The political reality is less noble. One can hardly imagine a more obvious signal that Ryan fears the prospect, if not of losing his own seat, than of losing the majority and hence his speakership. In the past, speakers — understanding the demoralizing impact that premature white-flag-waving would have on their troops — had the good sense to wait until after the election to announce that they would exit the leadership of their party. Ryan’s move has several consequences.
First, Democrats (who were heavily spending to defeat Ryan) can declare victory in that race and save the money it would have taken to knock out a sitting speaker. Get ready for Democrats’ taunts that Ryan lacked the courage to stand before the voters with a record like his.
Second, this is a flashing light to donors and candidates on both sides. For Republican money-men, the message is: Don’t throw away cash trying to save the House. (One wonders whether Ryan, previously a strong fundraiser, will still be able to get donors to open their wallets when he’s abandoning ship.) For Democrats, it will be further encouragement to add to the record number of candidates and to get on board for a Democratic sweep. In a wave year with the GOP leaderless, why not throw your hat into the ring?
Third, this will be seen in some quarters as a sign that Ryan cannot bear defending the president from potential impeachment. It has been a chore to act as Trump’s lead apologist, ignoring Trump’s outbursts and justifying his zigzags. Trump is now going down a protectionist road that Ryan deeply opposes. As much as this is a sign of no confidence in his House majority, it is effectively an admission: “I can’t take it anymore!” Imagine how much more stressful it will be if and when the special counsel returns a report that makes the case for impeachment.
Fourth, as we have noted, it is highly unlikely that Trump is going to deliver any more items on the GOP domestic wish-list. With tax cuts under his belt, Trump shows little interest or ability to proceed with arduous negotiations on infrastructure, health-care fixes, entitlements or much of anything else. Trump surely is not going to abandon his base to push for comprehensive immigration reform. Ryan seems to agree with our analysis that the GOP has gotten whatever it is going to get from this president.
Fifth, Ryan’s departure makes his refusal to remove from committees characters such as Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — who colluded with the White House in smearing the FBI and wrecking the intelligence-oversight system — all the more inexplicable. Why not take the heat to do the right thing, especially if Ryan is not going to run anyway? The lack of political courage still stuns onlookers who regarded Ryan at one time as a genuine policy wonk and serious leader.
In sum, Ryan retreats from the scene after loading the country up with debt and leaving virtually every other agenda item save tax cuts undone. He fantasized that in backing Trump, who lacks conservative principles (or any principles), he’d have carte blanche to enact the entire GOP agenda. He made his Faustian bargain with Trump on the false assumption that Trump would be compliant, take direction from House Republicans and demonstrate enough discipline to get through a slew of initiatives. That did not come to pass, because Ryan, in making his disastrous decision to place party over country and corporate tax cuts over defense of democratic values, failed to comprehend the depth of Trump’s unfitness and the centrality of character in determining a president’s success.
Instead of achieving the entire GOP agenda, Ryan will leave a besmirched legacy defined by his decision to back, enable and defend Trump, no matter how objectionable Trump’s rhetoric and conduct. Ryan has come to embody the nasty scourge of tribalism that dominates our politics. The inability to separate partisan loyalty from patriotic obligation — or to assess the interests of the country and the need to defend democratic norms and institutions — is proving to be the downfall of the Republican Party and the principal threat to our liberal (small “l”) democracy. And no one is more responsible for this than Ryan. No one.