When House Republicans elected House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) more than three years ago to lead them after John A. Boehner abruptly retired, they made a clear choice: to go with a well-liked conservative who had the best chance of uniting the party's conservative and establishment factions.
Now, Ryan is leaving a Republican conference that is arguably more splintered than when he got the job, this time along new lines: Trumpers and non-Trumpers. So when Ryan retires at the end of this year, House Republicans will face another fork in the road: Do they fully embrace President Trump's Washington, or do they try to find another uniter who can try to hold onto everything the Republican Party was before Trump, too?
Ryan tried desperately to bridge that gap. He spent a sizable chunk of his time as leader — certainly more than he wanted to — denouncing or criticizing things Trump said or did. At one point toward the end of the campaign, we calculated Ryan was speaking out against Trump roughly once a week. But after Trump won the election, Ryan never ditched him. Why would he when his legislative agenda and the broader health of the Republican Party was at stake?
From Ryan's perspective, his strategy worked. He managed to get a tax bill signed into law while passing an Obamacare repeal bill through the House, all while allowing himself room to say the president was wrong to equate white supremacists with counterprotesters last summer in Charlottesville
But underneath him, the GOP fault lines on Trump were growing.
Senators just as conservative as Ryan realized they could not win a primary while being critics of Trump. So, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) decided to retire, and to use his last days in Congress to compare Trump to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his own party to Stalin's enablers. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) compared Trump to a toddler, then announced his retirement.
A record number of more establishment House Republicans have decided to retire in the Trump era, at least one explicitly citing Trump as a reason.
On the other side of the GOP-Trump divide, House Republican leaders once respected for their bipartisanship in delicate intelligence investigations have picked up the sword for Trump on Russia. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) released a memo accusing the FBI of political bias in its spying on a former Trump foreign policy adviser. Legal experts, the Trump-appointed head of the FBI and Democrats all said the memo was severely cherry-picked to make the Russia investigation look bad and Trump's arguments against it look good.
Democrats are outright accusing some Republicans in Congress of trying to undermine the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And a steady drip, drip of news bolsters their point.
“Ryan faced a near impossible task,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said. “Unite and steer a Republican majority that often wanted to be neither united nor steered, while facing a torrent of outrages du jour from the White House that threatened to hurt enacting the agenda.”
Ryan managed some achievements under the toughest of circumstances. But when he leaves, he leaves a Republican Party that doesn't necessarily have a clear direction on Trump.
Some Republicans like Heye point to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as a bridge builder unique for the Trump era. McCarthy has served in Congress for nearly a decade, and he has somehow managed to be one of the establishment figures in Congress closest to Trump. “My Kevin,” Trump has taken to calling him.
But there are any number of other factions in the House GOP conference that could reasonably jump into the leadership race. Does a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus get a chance to govern? A Trump loyalist? A never-Trumper? To a certain number of Republican lawmakers, any one of those makes sense.
Ryan's departure comes at an average length of time for House speakers: three and a half years. But it comes less than two years into Republicans controlling Washington for the first time in a decade, something Ryan dared not hope for during the presidential election and then was elated when he got.
Those two years turned out to be tough for Ryan, in large part because of the divisions Trump has caused or exacerbated in the Republican Party. Ryan will be leaving a party that has a crucial decision to make on that front, and not necessarily a clear direction about where to go.