The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on April 15, 2018.
Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. This week’s cup overranneth with news, and between the Ryan resignation, the Cohen raid, and more airstrikes on Syria we couldn’t decide. So I wrote everything out on sticky notes and let my cat pick one, and Paul Ryan won out. The former VP candidate and current Wisconsin representative announced he does not intend to seek reelection this fall, leaving the Speakership for somebody else to take over. First question for our panel today: this one got a lot of bluster this week, but how impactful is it, really? Did my cat pick a good one, or is he just following the news winds?
Well first of all, getting a new speaker may actually be a challenge, if the House doesn’t flip. There is so much division within the Republican party that getting Ryan the speakership was a challenge, not least of all because he didn’t want it. The job for Republicans sounds awful, because you have to deal with all the nutjobs who think they aren’t killing the poor/disenfranchising the nonwhites fast enough, and also a president who is utterly uninterested in anything that isn’t personal gain.
Obviously, if Pelosi does win the speakership, she won’t be as prolific as last time (most productive congress in the last 40 years or so IIRC) but she can begin to make an actual legislative threat against the President’s malfeasance.
The impact is questionable, but I think your cat recognized that this is a moment worth taking to look back at who Paul Ryan is and has been the past few years. Sure, we might get a more overtly conservative figure in the House minority leadership (the Dems are taking that gavel), but what would that look like functionally? A cheerleader for Trump instead of Ryan’s silence? Someone who also wouldn’t bring a DACA bill to a vote, only more so, somehow? Ryan’s retirement matters the way the other 40-something Congressional retirements do: it opens up his seat. But it’s also a good time to talk about what his actual legacy will be when he (we can only hope) leaves the political stage forever.
It’s worth taking a look at Ryan’s retirement in context of the job, too. Historically, Speakers of the House don’t give up that power if they can help it. But it DOES fit a recent pattern. Here are the last few Speakers and how they left the job:
- Paul Ryan (R): Did not seek re-election
- John Boehner (R): Did not seek re-election
- Nancy Pelosi (D): Lost majority, sought and won re-election, remained Minority Leader
- Dennis Hastert (R): Lost majority, resigned during his next term
- Newt Gingrich (R): Maintained majority, resigned during his term
- Tom Foley (D): Lost seat and majority
- Jim Wright (D): Resigned during his term
- Tip O’Neill (D): Retired
O’Neill picked up the gavel in the ’70s, and prior to him you have to go back to John Nance Garner in the 30s to find somebody who didn’t give up the gavel by dying or losing a majority (Garner became Vice President). Even the guys who lost a majority tended to stick around and try to win it back; see Sam Rayburn and Joseph Martin trading the gavel back and forth from the 40s to the 60s. So this recent pattern of Speakers of the House stepping aside part way through their terms seems, at a glance, unusual. There’s something different going on than went on before.
A part of it is that the Republicans who are interested in governance are being swamped by people who hate the government is helping anyone not wealthy and white. I can’t imagine being a sane republican member of the House right now. At least the democrats can look forward to a majority where everything they try is either stymied in the Senate, or vetoed.
There’s some truth there, Christo: there isn’t an amount of money you could pay me to be Speaker of a Republican house, even if I were a Republican. I wonder, too, if there’s less of a commitment to the job than in older Congresses, less sense of public service. Why endure all of that nonsense if you can cash out and go to some think tank? And if you already aren’t a fan of government, there’s even less of a motivation to stick around.
Let’s not forget the political situation here. The GOP controls all three branches of government, but a shrinking Senate majority, a lack of presidential legislative leadership, and their own infighting has left them with very few policy successes, including a failure to repeal the ACA, which was a long time promise. When somebody like Ryan, who loves the smell of tax cuts in the morning, or any of these other true believers, look at this, looks at what’s going to happen with the midterms, and realizes they’re probably not going to get to achieve anything they really want—it’s like, why take the job?
What scares me is that the end of that line of thinking is the Onion video of the congress that forgot how a bill is promulgated and passed.
Seriously though, Paul Ryan cashing out is probably the smart play for him. In 6 years or whatever, he’ll run for governor.
So we’re agreed that Paul Ryan has every reason in the world to walk away from a miserable job he didn’t want in the first place. And Paul Ryan will be personally fine: his kids will go to nice schools, and he can enjoy the fruits of Wisconsin’s beer and cheese industries to his heart’s content. What’s the legacy, though, that he leaves behind? When historians add his chapter to books about the people who have held the Speakership, what will they have to say about him?
Not to Godwin the discussion, but I’m not sure history will look at Paul Ryan any better than it does Chamberlain—and at least Chamberlain had good intentions. Ryan wanted to do some incredibly evil things—this is a man who tells the story about dreaming of slashing the social safety net over a keg in college—and in order to get them done, he turned a blind eye to some even worse things. The 2012 campaign flirted with birtherism (Romney sought Trump’s endorsement), and Ryan failed to use his totally unearned media reputation as a serious conservative to push back against the racism and sexism that fueled the Republican base. He wanted to ride the tiger all the way to tax cut town, and when he got there he realized he’d been eaten along the way. It’s Ryan’s House that failed to curb Trump’s behavior, it’s Ryan that refused to bring a vote on DACA by hiding behind the president’s xenophobia, it’s Ryan who’s let Devin Nunes run rampant to interfere with the investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign. Not one hearing on the vast number of Cabinet corruption scandals. Ryan has utterly abdicated his Constitutional role. I’d say he sold his soul but I’m not sure he ever had one.
Paul Ryan wants his legacy to be the tax cuts, no question. He wishes he repealed ObamaCare, and probably regrets he never got the chance to ruin medicaid. His “fiscal responsibility” is basically wanting to hurt the poor and less wealthy, because they are poorer and less wealthy than the truly rich. All other considerations were secondary for him.
I think his true legacy is going to be his craven ineptitude in the face of Trump. Boehner got out when it was smart, partly because he actually seemed to have some interest in government working, although a) obviously I still disagree with his positions, and b) my calibration is probably off, starved for an actual opposition. Ryan cares for none of that. And so he was silent as the gears of government ground ever slower, and then Trump happened and the silence continued. He couldn’t get his repeal, and the tax situation was nauseating from a legal perspective.
I think you guys are right that the central thing Ryan will be remembered for is letting Trump thrash around in Washington. The tax cuts, I suspect, will be largely forgotten except as a note about what Ryan wanted, but the thrust will be that he had a chance to hold Trump accountable and didn’t. The kindest histories will only be able to say something like “he took a job he didn’t want and wasn’t able to accomplish much.” Most won’t be close to that kind.
It should be mentioned, by the way, that on the same day Ryan announced his retirement, the CBO put out a report saying the deficit will balloon to $1 Trillion, because of the Tax Cuts. For little to no economic benefit. So it also puts to lie every single deficit Hawk that complained throughout the Obama presidency as well.
If legacy is the planting of a garden you never get to see, Ryan’s helped to plant a poisonous swamp, and we’ll be harvesting it for years to come. And on that note, here’s my summation:
How does a failed Veep candidate / a real fan of impoverishment / become a crucial figure in the Trump-era government? He’s got no fans on policy / no one who likes his tax cuts / the base just wants a wall you see / and won’t take ifs ands or buts / What gave this young Republican the chance to see his dreams sunk? The accolades of journalists who seem him as their dream wonk / They must be blind, it’s hard to find a Ryan plan sans asterisks / He’s just a handsome face over the standard GOParty tricks / Inside he just wants giveaways to each donation level / He’ll even make a tiny handshake / deal with an orange devil / So when the party went for Trump / that racist rapist moron / what did Paul Ryan stand and say? / “This guy is great!” and so on / Now cut to one year later / As the blue wave’s crashing down on him / Obamacare’s still standing and Trump rages at the slightest whim / Paul got his cuts but nothing else / and fears to lose his Speakership / Time for the fiscal genius to flee this sinking debtor’s ship / Retirement at 49’s the way to ease the tension / Watch as this faithful Randian collects his government pension.
What’s his name man?
And on that note, we’re out of time for the Roundtable today, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda is reading, give us a call; Josh has a killer sequel to Hamilton to pitch. Thanks as always, guys, for a lively conversation!
Torchlight’s editorial staff are politically engaged citizens who stepped up to be journalists. (You could, too!) They participate in regular Roundtable discussions and work together to learn and write about the news.