Todd J. Gillman: Why Ryan departure is bad news for GOP

April 17, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision to retire isn’t a good omen for the Republican Party.

Congressional leaders don’t up and quit when they’re on top — not if they can reasonably foresee years of uninterrupted power ahead. They don’t walk away when they have a reliable ally in the White House pushing the same agenda.

But those aren’t the conditions Ryan faces.

“I have every confidence that I’ll be handing this gavel on to the next Republican speaker of the House next year,” Ryan said, despite growing evidence that the 2018 midterms will deal a body blow to his party.

He also insisted that dealing with President Donald Trump and coping with the chaos Trump has brought to Washington and the party had nothing to do with his decision.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’ve made a big difference and he’s given us that chance.”

Ryan has made a big difference for Republicans.


When tensions with the Freedom Caucus/tea party wing became too much for John Boehner to bear, Ryan stepped into the breach. As chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means committees, and as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, he’d earned deep admiration for his sunny demeanor, magnetism and steadfast conservatism.

In the post-Boehner era he was by far the most unifying leader available. He’s been the lid atop a simmering stew of grievances and cross-purposes.

And he has strategically kept the congressional wing of the party at a safe distance from a volatile president.

“I understand his frustrations,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, said on the Senate floor after Ryan announced that he won’t seek reelection. He all but dared the lame duck speaker to use “his newfound political freedom ... to break free from these hard-right factions that have plagued him.”

Some considerations as Ryan’s move sinks in:

No way to put lipstick on this pig:

This is not good news for Republicans. Ryan’s departure puts his own Wisconsin district at risk. It sets off a leadership fight between Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise and possibly the likes of Austin Rep. Michael McCaul, whose tenure as homeland security chairman is ending.

The infighting will drain energy just as the party needs a unified front to protect a majority that is very much at risk in November.

A blue wave is probably coming:

Midterm elections are almost always painful for the president’s party. There’s no reason to expect Trump to buck the trend, given how unpopular he is, the staff churn at his White House, questions about hush money to a porn star and the ongoing drama regarding his desire to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

The list is growing of House Republicans quitting rather than tough out a dreadful reelection season. And since it’s always easier for incumbents to keep a seat than for a newcomer to win a vacancy, the exodus reflects the GOP’s challenge and makes it worse.


Timing is everything in politics:

For years it appeared that Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling — a close friend of Ryan, and incidentally, Vice President Mike Pence — nursed ambitions of becoming speaker. His moment has passed.

He announced months ago that he won’t seek reelection and he’s already missed the Texas primary so it’s too late to change his mind. Although the Constitution allows the House to elect a speaker who isn’t a member of Congress, that has never happened.

Trump shouldn’t be happy:

Ryan was an accidental speaker. He didn’t seek the job but after he comported himself so well as the vice presidential nominee in 2012, Boehner and others twisted his arm, playing on his sense of duty to party and country, and he agreed.

But Ryan’s real ambition, other than the quixotic policy goal of revamping entitlement programs, is the Oval Office. Stepping down as speaker positions him for that in 2024. And it sets him up to be a white knight in 2020 if Trump looks vulnerable or is impeached.

Ryan insisted that he’s not interested in running for office at any level. That may be true now, but it’s not ironclad.

“Not while my kids are growing up,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper Wednesday afternoon. “I really thought when I took this job, Jake, that this is probably the last elected office I would have. I’m not going to run for president.”

Worst case for Ryan is that he’s shedding a dead end job when it comes to angling for the White House. James Polk, a Tennessee Democrat, remains the only president who had ever held the office of speaker, and that was before the Civil War.