Consider John Boehner’s fate. The Republicans ran the former House speaker out of Congress in a right-wing insurgency so unrelenting and traumatic that the uptight chain-smoker reemerged, three years later, as a lobbyist for weed legalization. In retirement, Boehner recalls his speakership as if his term—2011 through 2015—were the very worst and most divisive years of modern U.S. politics. Alas.
Boehner’s reluctant successor, Paul Ryan, has proved far more stoic throughout an even more tumultuous phase of Republican politics. On Thursday, Ryan departs Congress, having declined to seek an 11th House term. Ryan will relinquish the speakership to Nancy Pelosi, his party having lost 40 seats and control of the House. Still, Ryan has enjoyed a more graceful exit than Boehner. He’s done a farewell tour in the press to define and defend his legislative agenda for posterity, his life’s work being the massive tax cuts that President Donald Trump signed into law in November 2017. Ryan served in Congress for 20 years, and he was a key opposition figure throughout Obama’s presidency, but the departing speaker lives and dies by the headlines generated in his final congressional term: There’s the tax cuts, and then, of course, there’s Trump.
Ryan knows his legacy—in perception and effect—has been complicated by Trump’s election. Ryan spent the 2016 primary season at odds with Trump; he then spent the earliest months of Trump’s presidency refusing to acknowledge the president’s public statements. And yet Ryan is more closely associated with Trump, if only in contrast, than any other Republican in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a more apparently cunning and successful figurehead whose political career is hardly so overshadowed or stunted by Trump. Coincidentally, McConnell has proved far more rebellious than Ryan in his disagreements with Trump, his advisers, and his political coalition. Meanwhile, Ryan has spent his final congressional term playing dumb about Trump’s tweets. In recent months, Ryan and McConnell both seem to have moderated their frustrations with the president; Ryan now comments more freely about Trump, if only to characterize the president as a difficult personality to manage and, ideally, exploit. In the Trump-Ryan dynamic, it’s been tough to discern who is best exploiting whom.
It’s always been tempting to distinguish Ryan from McConnell, Boehner, and the rest of the congressional Republican leadership in this decade. Ostensibly, Ryan was an ideas man, a wonk who obsessed over the national debt and antagonized Democrats in a deliberative, philosophical style. In the first couple of years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Ryan emerged as the intellectual counterweight to a Democratic majority in the major congressional skirmishes over health care reform and economic stimulus. But Ryan dominated the wrong decade. Too eagerly, Ryan embodied the Republican establishment during a phase when the Republican base—first as the tea party, and now as Trumpism—mocked and abandoned the party’s mild-mannered figureheads, such as presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whom Ryan ran with on a 2012 ticket. Trump’s sweep of the GOP primaries in 2016 neutralized the party’s more conventional leadership; the quasi-populists overtook the pseudo-intellectuals. If Trump was a wild card, then Ryan was the clever survivor who could, at best, hope to dupe Trump into advancing a conventional Republican agenda.
Substantially, there’s no real difference between Trumpism and conservatism as Paul Ryan practices it. There only ever seems to be a fundamental disagreement about temperament. Outside of foreign policy, Ryan only ever clashes with Trump over properties and process. Boehner, too, insists on such a distinction between Trumpism and the broader Republican brand. “There’s a Trump party,” Boehner told a business conference a few months ago. “The Republican party is kinda taking a nap somewhere.”
Still, Boehner must concede that Trumpism and conservatism are similar enough to be indistinguishable from one another as a matter of governance. “From a Republican standpoint,” Boehner says, “the things he’s doing by and large are really good things.” Boehner says what Ryan has lived throughout Trump’s first term. Ryan allowed himself to be undermined and exhausted by a president who has, paradoxically, saved Ryan’s legacy. The speaker is leaving. His paradox remains.