“Absolutely not,” said Eric Cantor, the former majority leader. “The notion that Paul Ryan is just going to abdicate and leave is preposterous.”
Boehner and Cantor, speaking in separate telephone interviews Wednesday, were reacting to the latest speculation about Ryan’s future, after a rank-and-file Republican told local Nevada media that the Wisconsin Republican would resign within 60 days.
The comments drew a terse rebuttal from Ryan’s aides — “the speaker is not resigning” — but they amplified the suspicions among some House Republicans that Ryan has one foot out the door.
Ryan is only 48 years old, but he has been in office 20 years. He never really wanted the top job and was drafted into the post. His biggest policy goal, an overhaul of the tax code, ended in victory in December.
And, not to be forgotten, Ryan is not personally close to President Trump, with operating styles that are essentially night and day.
All this has created a strange buzz among lawmakers and on
K Street that Ryan might just leave midterm rather than wait for the November elections.
To Boehner (R-Ohio) and Cantor (R-Va.), the idea is blasphemy, both because of Ryan’s sense of duty and what it would say about the Republican chances in November.
“It would be a signal of surrender,” Cantor said, speaking from his Washington office of Moelis & Company, the New York-based investment bank where he now works.
“Paul’s a stand-up guy,” Boehner said from his condo in Marco Island, Fla.
The former speaker says Ryan is so valuable to House Republicans — their most prolific fundraiser, their chief spokesman and a respected colleague in most corners of the fractious caucus — that an early departure would likely propel other GOP lawmakers to head for the exits, before a brutal midterm election.
“He’s going to be the leader of the team all the way through the election,” Boehner said.
Since the start of World War II, just three speakers have left office midterm: Boehner, who spared his caucus from an internal insurrection; Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who resigned amid an ethics scandal in 1989; and Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.), who died in 1961.
After the elections, it’s anyone’s guess as to what Ryan will do. Neither Boehner nor Cantor, who both occasionally speak to Ryan, professed any inside knowledge about his intentions for next year.
If Republicans hold the majority, Ryan might step aside as speaker and go out on a political high note, having passed the tax overhaul in 2017 and defended the majority in 2018. It’s possible that he could be talked into sticking around if there is a clear, achievable policy goal.
One thing most insiders agree on is that Ryan has little interest in serving as minority leader should Republicans lose the majority.
“He’ll do what’s best for him, for Janna,” Cantor said, referring to Ryan’s wife. She is likely at the center of a very small circle of advisers who will guide this decision, or maybe even a circle of one.
“Nobody else,” Boehner predicted.
When he made his original retirement plans, Boehner clued in only three aides, who had been with him more than 20 years. Boehner wanted to serve four years, through the 2014 elections.
By that spring, the House was rife with rumors about his future. Cantor had lined up plenty of support to succeed Boehner and had made peace with some of Boehner’s close allies, who often felt the majority leader was too ambitious.
Even in detente, Boehner did not let Cantor in on his plans. The moment word leaks that a speaker is retiring, he becomes a lame duck with little clout to keep the caucus unified.
When did Cantor learn of Boehner’s intentions? “Only after I lost my primary,” Cantor recalled Wednesday.
In one of the biggest upsets in congressional history, Cantor lost to David Brat in the June 2014 primary. Boehner joked to Cantor about how this upended his retirement plans and he was going to stay on as speaker a bit longer to groom the next generation of potential leaders.
That turned out to be Ryan, who after weeks of GOP gridlock, when no one could secure the necessary 218 votes, succeeded Boehner in October 2015. The outgoing speaker, a fellow Catholic, had applied every bit of religious pressure to get Ryan to stand up for the job — even getting Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a faith adviser to Ryan, to urge him to take the post.
That ambivalence about the speaker’s gavel makes Ryan different from any other of the modern era. Everyone else saw the job as their career ambition, but not Ryan. That’s partly why there is always speculation that he could just walk away at any moment.
Ryan’s handling of questions about his future also fuels speculation. In January, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he did not commit to filing for reelection in his southern Wisconsin district.
“That’s something that my wife and I always decide in late spring of the election year,” Ryan said. Now that it’s spring, with a June 1 deadline to run, the rumors are kicking up again.
But Cantor expects Ryan to run for reelection, knowing that retirement would spark a divisive six-month leadership election to succeed him. When he lost to Brat, Cantor could have stayed on another six months and finished his term as majority leader, but he said that would have divided Republicans through nasty internal leadership elections.
He quit his leadership post immediately and resigned from office seven weeks after the loss.
In the past 30 years, speakers have bowed out because of ethics charges, internal rebellion or the loss of the majority. How should Ryan plan his exit to avoid that fate?
“I’m not in the advice business,” Boehner said.