DEMOCRACY IS necessary because the status quo is not perfect and the people must have a voice in changing it. But the status quo isn’t all bad, either, which is why, in a democracy, conservatism is necessary. The United States needs a decent, pragmatic, conservative party that emphasizes what traditions and institutions are worth preserving amid change.
The lesson of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s (R-Wis.) retirement announcement Wednesday, after less than three years in the position and at the relatively young age of 48, is that no such party exists. Today’s Republican Party is in thrall to President Trump and the 40 percent of the electorate that supports him — and for whose favor candidates in Republican primaries are now competing. That is to say, Republicans are decreasingly conservative and increasingly reactionary.
Slow to take the Trump phenomenon seriously, and then unwilling or unable to confront it effectively, Mr. Ryan now exits, a diminished figure.
At the best moments of his almost two decades in Congress, Mr. Ryan did stand for a decent conservatism, as he saw it. Like his mentor, Jack Kemp, Mr. Ryan spoke of making capitalism not only grow the economy but also work for the poor, and he mastered the details of policy. He favored robust immigration and free trade. He was upbeat and civil; during the 2016 presidential campaign, he sometimes pushed back against Mr. Trump’s demagoguery: “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles,” he said in a March 2016 speech on Capitol Hill.
At his worst — that is, over the past 18 months — Mr. Ryan proved unwilling to take risks for his proclaimed values. Even those lofty 2016 remarks left out the guilty party’s name: “Donald Trump.” That tactical omission, not later comments in which, say, Mr. Ryan called out the GOP candidate as a racist for impugning a judge’s fairness based on the judge’s Mexican heritage, proved indicative of how Mr. Ryan would act when a Trump presidency, with all its lies, instability and divisiveness, occurred. Since January 2017, he has mostly enabled the president — most disgracefully by allowing Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to turn the House Intelligence Committee’s review of Russian interference in the 2016 election into a partisan farce.
Mr. Ryan, like other top Republicans, thought he could somehow bend Mr. Trump to his policy purposes. It was a deal with the devil, and he considered it to have paid off when Congress passed a tax-reform law that did make the code somewhat more growth-friendly — while showering benefits on upper- income Americans and reducing federal revenue to unsustainably low levels.
Questionable as policy, the tax bill victory may prove Pyrrhic politically. Democrats are energized and seemingly on track to retake the House in November. Even if Republicans do hold the chamber, it will not be as the party of growth and opportunity but the party of tariffs and the Wall.
Some say Mr. Ryan is abandoning ship, but the real story is that the ship had already abandoned him.