Paul Ryan's Prospects Are Grim If He Stays
Whether those reports turn out to be true or not, Ryan has never appeared to see power in the House as a long-term career goal. And the medium-term outlook for Republican leaders in that chamber is extremely glum.
Republicans are almost certain to lose seats in 2018. That's what almost always happens during a president's first midterm, and given Donald Trump's awful approval ratings and the poor results for Republicans in 2017, it's hard to see anything but a good year for Democrats. By the same token, it's hard to see how Paul Ryan will avoid having the worst job in Washington. Unless, of course, he quits.
Suppose Democrats fall short, and Republicans retain their majority. In this scenario, Speaker Ryan would be spending most of his time and energy struggling to build a real working majority. Most of the lost seats would belong to mainstream conservatives. The proportion of anti-compromise radicals within the Republican caucus would increase, and so would the number of them Ryan would need to reach 218 on any vote. Everything except for must-pass legislation would likely grind to a halt -- it's not as if they've been able to do much even with their current, relatively large, majority. Ryan would probably have no choice but to beg Democrats for votes -- especially for the must-pass items -- which in turn gives them leverage and radicals more reasons to call Ryan a sell out.
If Democrats win enough seats for a majority, it gets even worse. With unified government, the job of the House minority leader is relatively easy: Non-stop criticizing of the president, and developing messaging bills and amendments to make the majority look bad. But divided government is different. It produces compromises that leaders from both parties generally must support. For House Republican leaders, that's a disaster because the Freedom Caucus will surely blame them for whatever deals are made.
It's grueling enough with a normal president, but Trump makes things even more so. When Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush cut deals with Democrats, Republican leaders could shrug at unhappy members of their caucus and point towards the White House. But Trump has shown zero ability to cut deals, and an impressive aptitude for undercutting whatever his party's leaders are doing. That leaves Ryan (and Mitch McConnell or whoever replaces him) with all of the responsibility and all of the blame for actually trying to get anything done.
The chances that the House Republican leader can survive two grinding years of that are slim indeed, and surviving it with a decent reputation among conservative activists would be even more difficult.
And if Ryan stays put and manages to survive that stretch? It's possible that Trump could prevail in 2020, returning Congress to Republican control in the process. But at least for now it seems less than likely. Ryan's job would certainly be easier if Democrats swept in 2020. On the other hand, being in the minority is rarely fun.
For much of this, Ryan has only himself to blame. Not only has he made several errors during his speakership, he's being criticized for running an overly centralized House, just like Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich. Meanwhile, his wonky reputation with the media has suffered mightily as his bills on health care and taxes landed with few signs of political or policy mastery. Just as was the case with his old mentor Jack Kemp, Ryan's skills remain those of an ideological propagandist, not a legislator or a congressional tactician. There's a place for those strengths in Congress, but it's not a great fit for the Speaker's chair. Perhaps he won't be there much longer.
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.
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