Ryan's Wonderfully Selfish Retreat

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law column earlier this week, I referred to "House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (the man who, by the way, would have been Speaker of the House if he could only have shut up about the Republicans' real reason for pursuing the Benghazi inquisitions)."  It was because of McCarthy's loose lips that Paul Ryan became Speaker in late 2015.

Little did I know that, less than a day later, McCarthy would be back in the running for the Speaker's position -- or, more likely, House Minority Leader -- when the man who displaced him shocked Washington by announcing his retirement.

Yes, Paul Ryan is walking away at the end of 2018.  He has provided plenty of material for people like me to write about over the years, but he will not be missed.  I expect to write a few additional columns about specific Ryan-related policy matters before he truly goes away, but for now I will focus on how his retirement reflects on him and exposes how his self-regard supersedes any of his supposed principles (even the principle of partisanship).

When news first broke yesterday morning about Ryan's announcement, I had a brief email exchange with Professor Dorf.  (As political junkies go, we are not actually extreme, but this news was big enough for us to take a few minutes out of the day to chat about it.)  My first thought had been, "Great!  He's finally gone.  Or is he?"

In 2010, Ryan co-authored a silly book with the unfortunate title "Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders," with McCarthy and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.  When Cantor was unexpectedly defeated in a primary by an even more extreme Tea Party-backed nobody in 2014, he decided to go for the money by taking a cushy position with an investment bank.  In the nearly four years since then, Cantor has been politically invisible.

Dare I hope that Ryan will follow his fellow no-longer-especially-Young Gun Cantor into obscurity, cashing in on the gratitude of the Republican mega-donors whom Ryan has done so much to enrich?  Or will Ryan become like Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker who has become the cockroach of American politics, impossible to get rid of even decades after his political implosion?

Professor Dorf offered this unappealing prediction about Ryan: "He will run for president in 2024, branding himself as a moderate. The media will fall for it."  I immediately saw that this was quite plausible (albeit absurd on the merits, as Dorf would surely agree), and I imagined the process by which Ryan would lie low for a bit and then make a comeback, channeling Eddie Haskell once again in all of his earnest smarminess.  Ryan is very good at looking serious and pained, and the press is especially gullible when it comes to politicians who do not shout.  "Oh, he sounds reasonable.  He must not be so extreme after all!"

But the American political system is now on hyper-drive, and it took less than twelve hours (rather than the two to four years that I had been expecting) for Ryan to be described by mainstream reporters as a non-extremist.  A story by two New York Times reporters was published under the headline, "Ryan Found Himself on the Margins as the G.O.P. Moved Right."  The Washington Post approvingly quoted a Republican political operative gushing that "Speaker Ryan is an embodiment of a particular kind of optimistic, pro-growth, pro-free market inclusive conservatism."

This is, of course, nonsense.  As we have seen over and over again, Trump in no way challenged the Ryan/Republican agenda, especially its economic agenda (other than on international trade, and Trump never seems actually to carry through with his isolationist threats, at least so far).  Ryan was dutifully worried about Trump's "textbook racism," but that was merely because Trump was bringing to the surface the ugliness that Ryan and the Republicans had been exploiting with a modicum of subtlety.

Ryan's supposed optimism was nothing more than a cocksure insistence that tax cuts will increase growth (no matter the evidence to the contrary).  He spent a good deal of his career figuring out ways to take benefits away from vulnerable people.  He is no more about "inclusive conservativism" -- whatever that is -- than is Trump or Sarah Palin or Pat Buchanan.  But, as Professor Dorf predicted, none of that is likely to matter when Ryan's next political persona comes into focus.

Given my disdain for Ryan, I originally thought that I would end up writing more scathing comments about him than anyone.  That assumption, however, turned out to be quite wrong, because many people despise Ryan at least as much as I do.  The best critique that I have come across so far was offered by The Post's Jennifer Rubin.  Although Rubin repeats the conventional wisdom by saying that Ryan's "lack of political courage still stuns onlookers who regarded Ryan at one time as a genuine policy wonk and serious leader" -- a description that would be funny if it were not so dangerously wrong -- she did offer this kick to the groin:
"The inability to separate partisan loyalty from patriotic obligation — or to assess the interests of the country and the need to defend democratic norms and institutions — is proving to be the downfall of the Republican Party and the principle threat to our liberal (small 'l') democracy. And no one is more responsible for this than Ryan. No one."
Ouch.  She is right, of course, which makes it especially galling to see the tears being shed for Ryan's supposed personal defeat at Trump's tiny hands.  But Rubin also made a particularly interesting political point (which I have since seen echoed elsewhere), which is that Ryan announced his retirement in a way that will do maximum political damage to the Republicans.  This will probably cause even more Republicans to retire, for example, and fundraising is already taking a big hit.

So why did Ryan do this now?  New York Congressman Peter King suggested that retiring from the House "gives him a chance to spend time with his kids, make some money, and then he will be in his mid-50s and can run for president, if that’s what he wants to do."  No surprise there, of course, given that Ryan ran for Vice President in 2012 (and, because of his extremism, arguably drove moderates away from voting for Mitt Romney) and has obviously been thinking about being president since long before he and his college keg buddies dreamed about cutting Medicaid.

But wanting to be president some day does not require Ryan to announce his retirement now.  Why not wait until after the election?  Times reporter Carl Hulse offers this somewhat puzzling explanation: "His choice to leave the House voluntarily at 48 gives him a chance to limit his culpability for a potential loss of the majority or face its consequences, possibly leaving him viable for a future political run."

It would be perfectly normal for a Speaker to try to prevent an electoral disaster and then to leave his post after that disaster actually occurs.  That, in fact, is what Gingrich did in 1998 (with an energetic shove from his demoralized remaining colleagues).  Ryan's early departure actually increases the likelihood that he will be blamed for Republican losses, for the reasons that I noted above.  Ryan will get no credit for trying mightily to stave off the worst, because he gave up and essentially told the world that he did not care what happens to the party members that he is leaving behind.

There is, however, a potential explanation that makes some sense.  If Ryan actually were to lose his House seat -- not just the Speaker's chair after a wave election for Democrats, but his own district -- Ryan would be dead politically forevermore.  Rick Santorum's sad career as a presidential also-ran after losing his Senate seat in a landslide is an especially apt example.

Could Ryan actually have lost this year had he not retired?  Apparently so.  Democratic candidate Randy Bryce, an iron worker who goes by the nickname IronStache, was already running an effective campaign, and Ryan was also being challenged in the Republican primary by a Trumpian right winger.

National Democrats, seeing Ryan's vulnerability, were pouring money into the district to score an especially sweet upset.  As Rubin also points out, this is an additional reason that Ryan's early announcement harms Republicans, with Democrats now free to redirect resources to other winnable races.  Ryan just made Democrats' jobs much easier.

If Ryan were truly a party man, a stalwart who believes in the (morally bankrupt) principles that he so unctuously touts, he would do what he could to help his party minimize the damage in 2018.  Even if he wanted to preserve his presidential possibilities, he could emerge from a shellacking later this year and -- with the credulous assistance of the national press to which Professor Dorf referred -- rebuild himself in a post-Speaker career.

That he has decided to do this much damage to his own reputation now suggests that the alternative was worse.  He could only have quit because he thought he would lose his own seat, and that would ruin everything.  If the rest of the Republican Party has to suffer in order to preserve Paul Ryan's fantasy of becoming president some day, Paul Ryan is more than willing to leave them in the dust.  I never thought I would say this, but: Thank you, Paul Ryan!