As is typical when someone important or notable leaves a job, friends and colleagues gather around and sing their praises.
No such luck for House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Ryan will soon take leave of his ornate office in the Capitol, with few people stepping up to slap him on the back and hail his tenure as successful. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could proclaim that Ryan wielded the speaker’s gavel with any degree of distinction, or point to some generally agreed-upon accomplishments — at least not with a straight face. There are few publicly congratulatory toasts on offer. Virtually no one seems to have a positive word to say about the 54th House speaker’s two terms as the third in line to the Oval Office.
Quite the contrary, Ryan’s retreat from Washington, presumably to return to Janesville, Wisconsin, is being hooted and jeered with derision. Here’s just a sampling:
In truth, he leaves Congress after his Republican brethren were drowned in the biggest blue wave since 1974. He leaves Congress with his conservative ideals in tatters. He leaves Congress having consoled himself, as he remarked on December 3, “that in a democracy, sometimes you fall short.”
…Ryan’s burden [was] the fact that he had to work with a president who was his opposite in every measure but party affiliation, and it’s easy to think Ryan’s speakership was doomed from the start.
Ezra Klein in Vox:
But now, as Ryan prepares to leave Congress, it is clear that his critics were correct and a credulous Washington press corps — including me — that took him at his word was wrong. In the trillions of long-term debt he racked up as speaker, in the anti-poverty proposals he promised but never passed, and in the many lies he told to sell unpopular policies, Ryan proved as much a practitioner of post-truth politics as Donald Trump.
And, in perhaps the most bitter assessment, Paul Krugman in The New York Times, who called Ryan a “con artist”:
Look, the single animating principle of everything Ryan did and proposed was to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted. Can anyone name a single instance in which his supposed concern about the deficit made him willing to impose any burden on the wealthy, in which his supposed compassion made him willing to improve the lives of the poor?
So how did such an obvious con artist get a reputation for seriousness and fiscal probity? Basically, he was the beneficiary of ideological affirmative action.
To offer Ryan a modicum of fairness, he never wanted the job. He was persuaded to take the job in October 2015 by outgoing Republican speaker John Boehner, under whose tenure it became well established that the daily herding of all those crazy cats in the GOP’s House delegation was a tortuous, thankless task.
Boehner, resigned in the middle of his term, frustrated by having to balance the impossible whims of a politically fractured 247-member GOP House majority, many of whom spent the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency unwilling or unable to admit that there were limits to their political power.
Immediately after accepting the gavel, Ryan acknowledged the enormity of the task ahead of him. “Let’s be frank: The House is broken,” Ryan said in his first speech as Speaker. “We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean.”
If only starting fresh had been possible, then maybe — just maybe — Ryan might have been more successful.
But any hope of that happening evaporated after a mercurial and mendacious reality-show entrepreneur was elected president a year after Ryan’s election.
Ryan has been in Washington since 1998, when he was first elected to Wisconsin’s 1st District seat in the U.S. House. Altogether, he was reelected eight times and served as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012. In other words, by the time he became speaker, he knew — or should have known — how to leverage power in Washington.
But Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency changed everything, making Ryan’s life miserable as a result. Indeed, during the 2016 campaign, Ryan often made a furtive effort to steer clear of Trump. Once it became clear that Trump would be his party’s presidential nominee, Ryan famously proclaimed himself “not ready” to offer Trump an endorsement.
When Ryan finally did extend his support, it came quietly, in a scoop handed to his hometown newspaper. Not long after, Trump redeemed Ryan’s trust by issuing a series of derogatory statements about Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s ethnicity, forcing Ryan to decry his new ally’s behavior as “textbook” racism.
Truly, Ryan’s initial unreadiness was a harbinger of things to come. As Politico’s Tim Alberta reported, Ryan had prepared a speech on election night in 2016 that amounted to a detailed rejection of Trumpism that urged the Republican Party to “return to an inclusive, aspirational” conservatism. That oration ended up going unheard when Trump, rather inconveniently for Ryan, won the election.
Trump’s personality overwhelmed the Republican Party and, in almost direct proportion, as Trump’s stature grew, Ryan’s shrank. No longer the brash and wonky congressman with charisma and charts to explain his budget-cutting impulses, Ryan repeatedly failed to provide any sort of bulwark against Trump’s never-ending lies.
For example, Ronald Brownstein chronicled for the Atlantic how Ryan became a handmaiden to Trump’s most outrageous impulses, “blink[ing] at confronting the president’s appeals to white racial resentments,” and following a “pattern of denial” in which he proved to be only too willing “to defend (or at least minimize) almost any presidential outrage.”
“Ryan was hardly alone in broadcasting that message—every other major Republican congressional leader did, too,” wrote Brownstein, “But it was especially powerful coming from a speaker who had fashioned himself as both a champion of inclusion and a policy wonk motivated more by ideas than partisan maneuvering.”
For all intents and purposes, Ryan faded from public view, after his April announcement that he would not seek reelection as speaker. As the Chicago Tribune keenly noted in a story announcing his resignation plans, “It has been a chore to act as Trump’s lead apologist, ignoring Trump’s outbursts and justifying his zigzags…As much as this is a sign of no confidence in his House majority, it is effectively an admission: ‘I can’t take it anymore!'”
So it’s of little wonder that very few denizens of Washington’s elite political circles or those within the echo chamber of right-tilting talking heads from the cable news set have raised a toast in Ryan’s honor. Though there was one person willing to offer begrudging praise about his tenure as speaker.
“I’d say we became a pretty good governing party,” Ryan told the Washington Post in a November 30 conversation that served as both a de facto exit interview as well as a public farewell. “And, you know, we lost a midterm election. Those things happen. But I think we’ve become a pretty good governing party.”
Fittingly pathetic, it seems, that only one to have kind and decent words of praise for the departing speaker is Paul Ryan himself.