It would be difficult to overestimate the meaning of Paul Ryan’s decision to retire from Congress even as he occupies the office of Speaker of the House. So let’s estimate.
- Twice in the past three years, the sitting Speaker has walked away from the office. Ryan only became Speaker because John Boehner, his predecessor, quit rather than suffer through a challenge from the bomb throwers in the Republican House conference. There’s no precedent for this in American history. The Speakership has been one of the most powerful offices in the world. Now it’s apparently more agony than ecstasy for a Republican. It’s true Ryan never wanted the job, but power is usually its own reward. The problem is that the job is far less powerful than it ever was before. The nature of the Tea Party and post-Tea Party GOP caucus is so fundamentally anti-institutional that the prerogatives of leadership are nothing now in the GOP. If a Republican is elected speaker after the 2018 midterms, it will be interesting to see how long he or she lasts.
- A Republican likely won’t be elected speaker after the 2018 midterms. Ryan’s decision suggests he and others have seen enough internal data to know their capacity to hold their 23-seat majority is slipping away. Already this morning, another Republican, Dennis Ross of Florida, announced his decision to retire. That makes 42 GOP retirements among the 237 Republican members of the 115th Congress—a number vastly higher than any recent Congress’s. Most of these retirements are in districts a Republican will win anyway. But while all signs have pointed to significant Democratic gains in the 2018 midterms, the Ryan retirement isn’t just a sign. It’s like a fireball from the sky. And it will occasion more retreats and embolden more Democrats.
- A line promulgated this morning is that the GOP is Trump’s party now, not Ryan’s. That’s true, but it’s silly and outdated. The GOP has been Trump’s party since he won the 2016 election. There is no electoral rump outstanding against him, making the philosophical or logistical or criminal case against the Trump presidency. How could there be? Whatever Trump wants to do, he has to get Congress to act on first; anything Congress wants, it needs Trump to agree to. And while Trump has never read Machiavelli, his central political understanding is straight out of The Prince—it is better to be feared than loved. His mercurial nature and habit of punching down have combined with general GOP support for Trump personally to prevent any such rump from emerging in the Congress. He’s already claimed the scalps of two Republican senators—Bob Corker and Jeff Flake—who attempted to do just that. How did their standing athwart Trump help them or anyone?
- Even as the headlines of the Trump presidency scream Mueller and porn star and Syria, some of the GOP’s wonkier agenda items are being implemented by the Trump administration–notably, in the sphere of deregulation. So, yes, it’s Trump’s party, but there’s an extent to which it’s also Ryan’s party, the conservative policy wonk’s party. Except, of course, for two big things.
- The first big thing is entitlement reform, which is the issue nearest to Ryan’s heart. No matter what happens, no matter the growth of the economy or the glories of #MAGA, the remorseless logic of the actuarial charts showing the government going bankrupt from the cost of Medicare and Medicaid sometime around 2030 is unyielding. The kicking of that can down the road is simply going to be the way America deals with this until the boa constrictor reaches our neck. Ryan wanted to stop that from happening. It’s not going to be prevented.
- The second big thing is the massive federal deficit, which is projected to stay above the $1 trillion mark for God knows how long. The bitter irony here is that the Tea Party–whose ab nihilo existence began the Republican resurgence in the House and Senate, and whose anti-Establishment ethos was the precursor to Trump–was obsessed with the idea that Barack Obama was breaking the bank, and rightly so. Now, the Tea Party forms the hard schist of the Republican base, and it’s clearly decided not to hold Trump accountable for his stewardship of budgetary matters. That means their concern for the issue is now just a vague talking point every once in a while.
- If the House has become an inhospitable place for a Paul Ryan, who actually cared about national matters more pressing than his next Fox appearance, then woe betide us all.