Ryan's Retirement Analysis: The House Speaker Ducks Blame Again

(Bloomberg View) -- Paul Ryan won't retire as the least effective House speaker of the modern era. Newt Gingrich's title is safe. But there's not much to say in favor of Ryan's tenure -- beyond that he inherited a difficult situation thanks to the group of rejectionist radicals who put their own purism ahead of the party's goals.

By choosing not to seek re-election, Ryan is once again putting his own reputation above the party's. Even worse, he's sending a strong message to Republican Party actors that he expects to lose their House majority. That will encourage donors to close their wallets and depress the energy of activists. It may even push some other incumbents to retire. That's nothing new: Ryan excels at ducking blame, rather than working to find solutions that might protect his conference. 

On the whole, Ryan just didn't have the skills to be a good party leader in the House. To be fair, it seems that he never aspired to that role, getting thrust into it when John Boehner -- a far more skilled leader -- resigned in 2015. But once he had had the job, he should have learned how to do it better.

If Gingrich was given to wild swings from one implausible agenda to another, Ryan was unfortunately consistent with aspirations that exceeded the severely limited policy competence of his party. He was big on committing himself and his party to wild-eyed goals and then failing to turn them into legislation with any realistic chance of becoming viable public policy. 

That was especially the case with health care. Ryan promised back in 2011 to repeal and replace Obamacare, but he never really did the hard work of coming up with a serious solution. He also never dropped that goal in favor of a more realistic retrenchment and counter reform. The result was a massive failure. 

It was also true in taxes. Ryan was oddly dedicated to a bold vision of reforming the tax system. But what he moved forward with in 2017 was just another version of big tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy -- a familiar Republican strategy.

The same was true of Ryan's ambitions to slash Medicare spending while also somehow reinventing it in a way that wouldn't harm anyone. As a result, any kind of entitlement reform fell right off the Republican agenda when they might have had the votes to make something happen. That was good news for the large majorities who support Medicare, but has to count as a sound defeat for Ryan. 

Practically none of Ryan's real goals have amounted to anything despite Republicans holding the White House and Congress since January 2017.  As Paul Krugman put it, Ryan "has failed at both his pretended goals and his real goals."

President Donald Trump taught us to never say never, but it's hard to see much of a future political career for Ryan. Accepting the speakership probably killed off his presidential prospects. It's simply impossible to win the enthusiastic support of party ideologues while doing the job. And in the Republican Party, there's nothing but ideologues. 

I have no insights into what Ryan wants. My guess is he stays in Washington, finding some perch where he can resume publishing detail-free, idealized budgets that score points in the media and in the younger ranks of the Republican Party. 

He won't be missed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

  1. Deep tax cuts are more or less automatic in that situation, as demonstrated.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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