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The Political and Very Personal Failure of Paul Ryan

The embattled House speaker announced Wednesday that he will retire from Congress at the end of his term. Was his capitulation to Trump worth it?

House Speaker Paul Ryan Announces That He Will Not Run For Re-Election Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement from Congress, effective at the end of his current term. For months, Ryan had denied rumors of his retirement, which long seemed likely given his fraught relationship with President Donald Trump. More than any other Republican figure, Ryan came to represent the party’s capitulation to Trump’s bewildering political rise, and his departure represents the exhaustion and chronic failure that the party has thus brought on itself.

Ryan’s leadership term was brief, bratty, and unproductive, so defined by his prissy, doe-eyed posturing in the face of political dysfunction. Ryan has served as speaker for two and a half years, first during Barack Obama’s tenure, and now during Trump’s. Under both administrations, Ryan struggled to connect with the president. While Ryan’s Republican predecessor, John Boehner, developed an uncanny “bromance” with Obama, Ryan’s relationship with Obama was hostile, defined largely by personal grievances and bitterness. Ryan is the apotheosis of the College Republican: a bookish and pedantic man obsessed with the aesthetics of persuasion despite his own characteristic failure to convince anyone of anything, ever. He’s also a Randian conservative whose lifelong obsession with austerity clashed with the Obama administration’s more generous political outlook. Years before House Republicans elected Ryan as their speaker, Obama famously disparaged the then–House Budget Committee chairman’s proposed spending cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Ryan has sulked through Washington ever since.

Alongside Trump, congressional leadership is a thankless job, and Ryan has made the least of his role. Apart from passing tax reform, the Republican leadership scuttled even its own most urgent reform efforts, including health care and immigration. Trump’s erratic governance has made it difficult for the GOP to coordinate its legislative priorities with the White House. Meanwhile, Trump has routinely forced Ryan to mitigate scandals and provocations that risk terminal sabotage of the Republican brand. In Trump’s first year, Ryan would shamble through entire press conferences while denying knowledge of Trump’s latest statements — tweets, usually — or else denying their significance as presidential pronouncements. Since the 2016 presidential primaries, Ryan has seemingly regarded Trump as a useful idiot, subject to certain control by GOP leaders despite his chaotic style of campaigning. Trump exploited Ryan’s hubris to win control of the Republican Party, and the president has gone on to expose Ryan as the true fool in their arrangement.

With the midterm elections now seven months away, political forecasters expect the GOP to lose control of the House, if not also the Senate. The news of Ryan’s retirement has further soured the GOP’s outlook on the midterm elections, and now additional Republican retirements seem likely to coincide with Ryan’s departure. On Wednesday morning, Representative Dennis Ross, a Republican from Florida, announced that he, too, will retire at the end of his term.

As speaker, Ryan’s definitive achievement — his only real legislative accomplishment, honestly — is the $1.5 trillion tax bill passed in December. As a dramatic reduction of the corporate tax rate, coupled with a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, the bill encapsulates the fiscal alarmism that has defined Ryan’s congressional career ever since he tried in the mid-2000s to help George W. Bush privatize Social Security. Following the tax bill’s passage, the rumors of Ryan’s departure spiked, as political analysts concluded that he had effectively achieved the only idea he’s ever had. And yet Ryan will leave on the lowest possible note, having debased and gutted his party in service of a president who has humiliated Republicans to the brink of federal indictment, all while demoralizing a nation and endangering its most vulnerable citizens.

The early reports suggest that Ryan might return to national politics. It is difficult to predict what shape the Republican Party will even be in if Ryan comes back to Washington. He’s left the party worse off, and it’s tough to imagine anyone clamoring to have him back.