"The House is broken," Paul Ryan acknowledged in his speech accepting the speakership of the U.S. House on Thursday morning. "We are not solving problems. We are adding to them."
Ryan went on to paint — in the broadest possible strokes — a vision of how he would lead the effort to fix what ails the chamber. "We will not duck the tough issues," he pledged. "We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated," he reassured. "Real concrete results" would be produced, he promised.
To which I say: Maybe ... leaning toward probably not.
There's no question that Ryan commands more loyalty and respect among the GOP rank and file — particularly on the conference's ideological right -- than John Boehner did. One example: Ryan got 236 Republican votes for speaker Thursday; Boehner got just 216 when he was reelected speaker in January. The vast majority of those vote-switches came from the ranks of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose chairman, Ohio's Jim Jordan, also voted for Ryan.
Beyond that, circumstances have conspired to give Ryan the best possible chance of succeeding. Not only will he benefit from a honeymoon period of good will from his members, but he also won't have to engage in the budget brinksmanship that defined Boehner's tenure. That's thanks to the budget deal Boehner negotiated with the Senate and the White House that, while hated by conservatives, takes the prospect of a government shutdown or a default via the debt limit off the table until 2017.
That's a lot of things that Ryan has going for him!
But there are also deep structural problems — in the House rules, our political process and the changing ways we live together (and apart) — that will make it harder than you might think for Ryan to heal a broken House. Among those problems:
1. The earmark ban. Boehner touted his ban on earmarks as a signature achievement of his time as speaker in his farewell address. And it was. But by taking away the leadership's ability to sweeten the pot for individual lawmakers trying to bring home goodies for their districts, Boehner set in motion a process that led to his semi-forced resignation. Without a carrot to offer wavering members on a controversial piece of legislation, leadership had to rely almost exclusively on relationships and good will. Study the results of tough votes over the past few years to see how far that gets you in the current incarnation of the House. (HINT: Not far.)
2. The rise of outside conservative groups. If Boehner robbed GOP leaders of the carrot, then groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action robbed them of the stick. The rise of these organizations, who not only preached ideological purity but demonstrated an ability to raise lots and lots of money for that cause, meant that the party leadership could no longer choke off campaign funds to those who refused to fall in line. Quite the opposite. Bucking the party leadership or refusing to play nice now delivers conservative members a considerable windfall, financially speaking.
3. Polarization in the country. There's lots of reasons for why people these days tend to line up more uniformly behind one party or the other — redistricting, self-sorting, rise of the partisan media — but the outcome is the same: We as a nation agree on less than ever before. This chart from a 2014 Pew Research Center study on polarization tells that story powerfully.
4. Polarization in Congress. Not surprisingly given the rising polarization in the country, the people we elect have become increasingly partisan, too. The 2010 election saw the ouster of dozens of centrist Democrats — the vast majority of whom were replaced by more ideologically-pure Republicans. The "Big Sort" happening in the country has been reflected in Congress over these past five years; only 26 of the 247 House Republicans hold districts that President Obama won in 2012, for example. This chart, unearthed by fellow WaPo Chris (Ingraham), explains that sorting of the Congress. The dots below represent each member of the House, sorted by party (red is Republican, blue is Democrat ... duh) with lines connecting those who vote together frequently.
The tectonic plates of our society — and our politics — are shifting. Can Ryan, through force of personality and circumstance, stop or reverse those shifts? Probably not.