With apologies to Frank Sinatra, House Speaker Paul Ryan might be thinking “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, enough to mention.” What went wrong and why? And might it be different in the future, if indeed there is a near term future for House Republicans? Some facts, some interpretation, and some conjecture:
1. Ryan had impecable credentials. One of the Young Guns (along with former Speaker Eric Cantor and Ryan’s endorsed successor Kevin McCarthy); chairman of the House Budget and Ways and Means Committees; the party’s 2012 Vice Presidential nominee; a representative from a swing district in a swing state.
2. There was a chance for transformative legislation, with Republicans controlling the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. Unlike the Senate, Ryan’s House can pass legislation with a simple majority.
3. When Ryan succeeded John Boehner in 2015, he inherited promises made by the Republicans in their “Tea Party Election of 2010” – term limits for committee chairs; elimination of “earmarks”; restoration of “regular order” in which legislation would go through committees, there would be floor debate and amendments, and enough time for members to study legislation before voting.
4. Ryan has had a difficult caucus, with a 24 seat majority, a disciplined hard right Freedom Caucus of some 30 members, and the shadow of the “Hastert Rule” under which the Speaker would not bring up legislation which did not have the support of a majority of his caucus.
5. He had a difficult Democratic Party opposition under Nancy Pelosi, committed to oppose anything which would forward a Trump agenda, and disciplined to the extent that not a single Democrat supported the 2018 tax reduction act.
1. The reforms of Newt Gingrich in the 90’s and the Tea Party Class of 2010 have made it more difficult for Republicans to manage the House. Committee chairmen are less experienced and influential when their term is limited to six years. Without earmarks, the leadership is unable to buy the votes of members who are on the fence. Ideological differences become more important as the lubricants are removed.
2. The constant anti-Trump overhang makes it less enjoyable to be a Republican in Washington – particularly when the trips back home to meet with constituents are consumed by questions of the Mueller investigation and Trump’s moral turpitude rather than what is being done to help the country. To date, eight committee chairs and 19 other Republican members have announced that they will not run for re-election or assume any other office, compared to 11 Democrats. Some of this is a result of #MeToo problems; some is a political calculation of their reelection prospects; much is long term veterans deciding that the limited accomplishments of Congress are not worth being part of a 20% congressional approval rating.
3. The $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill of 2018 was the last straw. Ryan has long since given up hope for his cherished Medicare and Social Security reform. Any movement toward a balanced budget is gone with projected trillion dollar deficits in good years. Ryan became the advocate for a spending bill second in size only to President Obama’s stimulus bill, without anybody having time to read it under threat of government shutdown.
4. Caught between the White House and the Freedom Caucus with no Democratic support, things will not get better. Trump wants to claw back $60 billion of spending – Ryan cannot deliver. Trump and a bi-partisan group want to revisit DACA – Ryan cannot deliver. Trump is willing to take on the National Rifle Association – Ryan cannot deliver.
5. It is possible, although by no means assured, that the Democrats will win the House in 2018. If so, there will be a bloodletting among Republican leadership, and a fractured caucus.
1. Unlike Boehner’s reesignation as leader in 2015, it does not appear that the Freedom Caucus, or any other group maneuvered for his removal. If President Trump wanted a change, he was uncharacteristically discreet. This was Paul Ryan’s unilateral decision. He will be remembered for the massive 2018 corporate and individual tax restructuring, but not much else.
2. It is better for the Republicans if Ryan remains speaker through 2018. Not much is expected of Congress between now and November, but a lame duck with all of the right connections is better than a vacancy.
3. It would probably have been better for Ryan to wait until after the election to make the announcement. To the extent that the public cares, he is a gentleman and a steadying figure in a party which needs a broader visage than Donald Trump. The impact on party activist enthusiasm will be positive for Democrats and negative for Republicans. The seat may well be lost.
4. The primary contenders – majority leader Kevin McCarthy, majority whip Steve Scalise, and Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan – are all promising to put the fortunes of the party in the Fall elections ahead of their personal ambitions. The traditional Republican deference for the “next in line” may well prevail to the benefit of McCarthy who has a good relation with the President, demonstrated fundraising skills, and a “get along with everybody” personality. The key question is how much the Freedom Caucus – which torpedoed McCarthy in 2015 before Ryan agreed to serve – will want in terms of a more aggressive relation with Mitch McConnell and an ability to impact legislation.
Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader since 2002, is measuring the curtains while reminiscing about battles with Dick Armey, Tom Delay, Roy Blunt, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Paul Ryan.
This week’s bonus is an interview with Candace Owens – an articulate conservative African American who has taken Morpheus’ “red pill”.