On Wednesday April 11th Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the representative from Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, announced his retirement from the House at the end of his term next January. In a simple press conference that was almost overshadowed by the latest series of presidential tweets on Syria, Mr. Ryan expressed gratitude for the opportunity to lead and optimism for the future of both the nation and the GOP’s House majority. His retirement from the House, he stated, was to spend more time with his children before they leave home, a motivation that was not questioned by most as Mr. Ryan’s own father died of a heart attack when the future Speaker was only 16.
Despite the Speaker’s personal motivation to be more to his kids than a “weekend dad”, commentators across the major news networks couldn’t help but speculate that uncertainty over the future of the House in the upcoming midterm elections. All analysis saw his retirement as a bad sign for those hopeful of a Republican House this time next year. Not only a major leader of the Republican Party and a successful fundraiser for campaigns across the nation, Ryan continues to be seen as a figure that appeals to conservatives turned off by President Trump’s coarse manner or unorthodox policies. The personal integrity and commitment to conservative ideology that made him a young star in the House of the early 2000s would hopefully keep warry conservatives onboard in 2018. However his long history as a promoter of lean budgets or civil politics was hardly mentioned in network analysis and the Speaker, lately sidelined both in tone and ideology by the Trumpian atmosphere of Washington, seems to be unwilling or unable to continue this role.
Paul Ryan has often portrayed himself as a stranger in the strange land of Washington DC, a simple Midwesterner in contrast to wheeling and dealing on both sides of the aisle. In his early days on the campaign trail in 1998, his Path to Prosperity entitlements slashing and his elevation to the Speakership in 2015, the representative from Wisconsin has been cast as a humble yet intelligent man, with a unpretentious family history that informed his exacting pursuit of financial discipline. For many year the Congressman was able to wear two hats, that of the fiscal policy wonk and that of the unassuming representative from Janesville, WI.
In many ways his humble personal story and down-to-earth aesthetic enhanced his economic crusade; a person who lived life without affectation and who had saved social security checks to pay for college was a good choice to pitch cuts to spending for the impoverished and elderly. To many voters Paul Ryan embodied an older Republican Party, a party that made up of people who wanted tax cuts and lower government spending to aid small businesses and middle class families, not to help city living elites and large corporations. Sure, the cuts and regulation rollbacks promoted by Ryan may have helped the latter, but he seemed so earnestly to champion the former that he became the perfect spokesman for the GOP, at least for a time. Mr Ryan, it seemed, was born to become Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax writing body in the House.
However, just as Mr. Ryan ascended to his preferred post in 2015, a split within the Republican majority in the House threatened to sink the Party’s reputation. The far-right Freedom Caucus, a bloc of conservative congressmen with ties to the Tea Party Movement, decided that Speaker John Boehner was unacceptably cooperative with the Obama Administration. Boehner, in many ways cast from the same classic conservative mold as Ryan, was clearly no longer able to hold the fractious GOP coalition together. Neither could Kevin McCarthy, who was perceived as too moderate. Paul Ryan, a man who had famously championed politeness and respect between politicians even in moments of serious disagreement, was acceptable to Freedom Caucus do to his long standing credentials as a budget slasher and entitlement hawk. His mix of collegial cordiality, pan partisan integrity and uncompromised economic convictions made him the bridge the House majority needed. John Boehner allegedly told Ryan that God had told Boehner that Ryan had to take the job; no small thing for two devout Catholics. Ryan declined multiple times, but finally relented when he saw that his ascension was the only option.
Until the 2016 election cycle, it seemed as if Paul Ryan might succeed in healing the competing visions of his party. Gearing up for a platform that featured free trade, deregulation and tax cuts, Speaker Ryan was ready to combat the perceived overregulated American business environment of the Obama years.
But if this truly is the end of Paul Ryan’s political career (a possibility this writer finds unlikely) then his tomb can have no other epitaph but the the word TRUMP. For traditional conservatives, it may have been the Speaker’s inability to appear resolute in the face of President Trump. For Trump supporters in the new GOP, the Speaker may have failed to get on the White House train with sufficient enthusiasm. For those who bought into his slim budget, free trade policy pitch, his failure to contain deficits in the latest budget, protect NAFTA or prioritize entitlement reform may have been unforgivable. For those that thought that Midwestern family man was the perfect foil to the brashness of Donald Trump, Mr. Ryan’s transition from wary opposition during the election to silent benchwarmer after January may have been grievously disappointing. This is not to say that Paul Ryan was the only casualty. Many Republicans known for their politeness and civility were drowned out by the constant tweeting and drama pouring out of the White House and swamping news coverage from Fox to The Atlantic.