Paul D. Ryan’s face has always said more than his words. In the two years since the Republican Party takeover by Donald Trump, it has been a mask of anguish.
So it is no surprise that, come what may for House Republicans in the fall election, the Wisconsin Republican will not be leading them into the next Congress. Still, the assumption had been that he would soldier through reelection in November and step down after that, so that his stature — and his capacity to raise money — would not be diminished by being a lame duck.
Ryan’s announcement Wednesday that he will not run for reelection represents a bright distress flare illuminating the seriousness of the predicament into which President Trump has plunged his party. The speaker claims he is ending his congressional career out of consideration for his family, which may be sincere, but the timing is devastating.
Republican incumbents were already retiring from the House in numbers far greater than at any time in recent history. Ryan’s decision to join them will no doubt spur others to do the same, rather than be part of a November wipeout.
There is less talk than there was even a month ago of how a vibrant economy might come to the GOP’s rescue. Trump’s erratically protectionist trade pronouncements have put all that in jeopardy. There are, of course, the tax cuts, which are the House Republicans’ only big achievement during the 15 months since their party took control of all the levers of power in Washington. But the president won’t stick to the script when he is sent out to sell them.
Meanwhile, Trump’s legal jeopardy mounts, most recently with the spectacle of the FBI raiding the home and office of a lawyer who represents the president. The prospect that Trump will be impeached is being discussed more openly as a campaign issue — and not just on the fringe left but by Republicans themselves, in hopes that the threat of what might happen under Democratic control will keep their base fired up.
Ryan did not have to wait for the November election to confirm what Trump has done to the speaker’s own reputation for intellectual depth and rectitude. He has been a hapless passenger in the sidecar of this chaotic presidency, not the driver of big policy ideas he once imagined himself to be.
Most of the Affordable Care Act remains intact, making hollow all his promises to repeal and replace it. Ryan’s most ambitious goal, to rein in entitlement spending, is not to be. Instead, part of his legacy will be a federal deficit projected by the Congressional Budget Office to top $1 trillion a year by 2020.
This job was not something Ryan had sought or even wanted. After his solid performance as Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, he was just settling into the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee when the speaker’s gavel was thrust upon him with the resignation of John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in October 2015.
Ryan, at 45 the youngest speaker in nearly 150 years, was thought to be the only one capable of managing the fractious House Republicans who had undone Boehner.
That would have been a difficult enough job on its own. At the time, the prospect of a President Trump was not part of the calculation.
Ryan could not have known then that his brand of wonky conservatism would be whittled away by the many accommodations he would have to make, or how much his own principles would be subverted to an impulsive, ideologically unmoored Republican in the White House.
Where he was once an ardent advocate of free trade, he stood by when the president declared tariffs on steel and aluminum, reduced to having his spokeswoman issue a statement that he was “extremely worried” about the prospect of a trade war.
On moral ground, the speaker has capitulated even more of who he was.
He was once able to muster the fortitude to call Trump’s attacks on a Mexican American judge “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” When the “Access Hollywood” recording leaked just weeks before the 2016 election, revealing that the GOP nominee had made vile comments about women, the speaker pronounced himself “sickened,” and canceled a campaign event in which the two had been scheduled to appear together.
Ryan’s stomach has since grown stronger, or perhaps his standards have grown weaker. Asked in March about reports the president’s lawyer had paid a porn actress to be silent about her alleged 2006 tryst with Trump, Ryan said: “I haven’t put a second of thought into this. It’s just not on my radar screen.”
Which said a lot about how far Trump has taken Ryan and his party. Republicans are girding to pay the price for that in November. As for the speaker of the House, he already has.