The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan (R-Wi.), announced Wednesday morning his intention to retire from Congress in January. The news came as a surprise to many and, with midterm elections looming, Ryan’s decision adds a new twist to the fight for control of Congress. Is this really an ominous sign for House Republicans, though? Many conservatives will certainly cheer the Speaker’s departure, which may reflect the evolution of a party that always seems to fall short of its promise. It is another sign, perhaps, that the old Republican Party will not survive the stewardship of President Donald Trump.
In a short press conference, Ryan cited a shift in personal priorities. “If I am here for one more term,” he told reporters, “my kids will only have ever known me as a weekend dad. I just can’t let that happen.” Ryan’s likely successor as leader of the House Republicans is Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
No Better Time to Go
After 20 years in the House, representing Wisconsin’s first district, Ryan may believe that there could be no better time to go. Although Congressional Republicans failed to deliver on their promise to repeal Obamacare, they did score a major legislative victory this year with a tax reform bill that has had a tangible impact on the Amercian economy. Additionally, Ryan understands that, come November, his party could lose control of the House. If that were to happen, the loss would be, in large part, due to the dismay felt by many voters over the monstrous omnibus spending bill the Speaker himself worked so hard to get to the president’s desk.
Widely respected as a policy expert, Ryan is a favorite of the Republican establishment, but he isn’t popular amongst fiscal conservatives. Along with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, Ryan has – for many – come to symbolize the worst characteristics of his party. Like a highly intelligent child who refuses to apply himself to his studies, the Republican Party forever seems on the verge of great things, only to disappoint when crunch-time arrives.
A Party Shedding Its Members and Perhaps Its Image
Unable to kick the spending habit and, it seems, unwilling to stand up to Congressional Democrats, the Republican Party that Ryan symbolizes drove its long-suffering voters to reject a host of Republican presidential candidates in favor of Donald Trump. It is surely no coincidence that Trump’s first year and a half in the White House has accompanied a steady stream of retirements within the national party. Trump was never a Republican and he has not become one since he clinched the presidential nomination and went on to stun Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Instead, he is gradually bending the party to his will; chipping away at the establishment and replacing it with a mixture of populism, nationalism, and blunt pragmatism.
Ryan was certainly no fan of the president. Whether he gradually warmed to him is debatable but he did conform to the Trump agenda, to a large degree, and he will depart Capitol Hill in January more of a Trump ally than he was a year ago.
Whether Ryan’s resignation will have a significant effect on the midterms is debatable. If the Democrats realize their dream of a ‘blue wave,’ then this one seat matters little. If, on the other hand, the opposition party – with no solid platform of its own – has miscalculated the effects of a strengthening economy, then Republicans can retain control of the House, with or without Ryan’s seat. Certainly, he would have won his own race in Wisconsin, where his last margin of victory was over 34 percentage points. His district voted for Trump by a margin of more than 10% but the Democrats will certainly feel they now have a chance to capture this seat. Republicans have until the beginning of June – the filing deadline – to come up with a strong replacement. The current main Republican contender, Paul Nehlen, is a controversial figure who many view as something of an extremist. Nehlen has little chance against Democrat Randy Bryce.
Paul Ryan is not a man whose character invited scorn. He is not an unlikable person and one cannot fault him choosing to focus on his young family. His stewardship of the House of Representatives was neither a disaster nor a great triumph, from the Republican perspective. For conservatives, however, there has been little to cheer during the Ryan era and those who wish the Republican Party would grow a spine and finally take a stand for conservatism will not mourn his departure.