Whenever a speaker of the House says he is heading for the exit, it is always about much more than the comings and goings of a single member of Congress.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who announced on Wednesday that he will retire at the end of his term this year, says he is leaving for family reasons and because he has accomplished a big career goal: tax reform.
While politicians often cite their families in such announcements, the Republican from Janesville, Wis., may actually mean it. His dad died when he was just 16 years old, and his three teenagers weren’t even born when he first came to Washington two decades ago.
“If I’m here for one more term my kids will only ever have known me as a weekend dad,” he told reporters. “I just can’t let that happen.”
But consider the political context: Washington is seeing a young speaker who is third in line to the presidency and who once ran as a vice-presidential candidate willingly leave the nexus of power when his party controls the White House, the Senate, and the House. No speaker has given up the gavel on his own terms since Democrat Tip O’Neill in 1987.
The timing is notable for what it signals about a divided GOP and the approaching midterm elections. President Trump is attempting to remake the party in his image, an image not in sync with an “establishment” conservative like Ryan – either in demeanor or on key issues such as the Mueller investigation, trade, and immigration. Republicans are deeply divided, and sense a blue wave approaching in the November elections.
“Trump as president has been a challenge for traditional Republicans like Ryan. He represents a different direction for the party, but also he is a whirlwind of a president and unpredictable,” says Matthew Green, an expert on the speakership at Catholic University in Washington.
Ryan’s decision to get out of politics, at least for now, deprives the GOP of one of its stars. When he was first elected to Congress in 1998, he was a boy wonder, still in his 20s. His study of conservative economics, under the mentorship of the late Rep. Jack Kemp, and his ability to articulate his views and master the minutiae of policy made him a Wonk with a capital “W.”
His youthful appearance, commitment to physical fitness, and family portrait made him a poster boy for Midwestern values. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, shocked no one when he made Ryan his running mate. Mr. Romney saw Ryan as a junior version of himself, committed to conservative principles, but also willing to work across the aisle.
By then, Ryan had risen to the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee, and then finally reached what he called his dream job, chair of the tax writing House Ways & Means Committee. But after less than a year, in 2015 he was tapped to become speaker, a position he took reluctantly. He didn't want to spend so much time fundraising for the GOP, and away from his family.
The rise of Trump challenged him like nothing else. Ryan stopped short of withdrawing his support for Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape on the eve of the 2016 election, but he made clear that Trump’s comments disgusted him and refused to appear with him in public.
Nevertheless, he worked with the president on a massive tax cut that passed last year, succeeding also in turning back the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate to buy health insurance or pay a fee.
“I’m grateful for the president to give us this chance to actually get this stuff done,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday. When asked about not sticking around to see the trillion-dollar deficits now forecast to follow the tax cut, Ryan pointed to the need to reform entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Ryan certainly has his detractors. His work with the unconventional president led many Democrats and Republican “never Trumpers” to say that the speaker had “lost his spine.”
Back in Wisconsin, the departure of Ryan means the GOP has a weaker grip on his seat. Since his announced retirement, Ryan’s seat shifted from solid Republican to lean Republican, according to a new assessment by David Wasserman, who watches House seats closely for the independent Cook Political Report. That seat has not been at risk of flipping to Democrats since Ryan was elected, he observes.
Now that the speaker is unchained from a mercurial president who tries the patience of even his friends, will Ryan spend his remaining time in office speaking his mind, as other retiring members are doing? Or will he keep any dissonant thoughts to himself, in an effort to maintain party unity at a time of great challenge?
Will he use 'newfound political freedom'?
On the Senate floor on Wednesday, minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York urged Ryan to use his “newfound political freedom … to break free from these hard-right factions” in his caucus that contributed to gridlock and to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats.
But others say that is unlikely. His pending departure only reinforces the conventional wisdom in Washington that lawmakers are now in campaign mode, and except for having to consider Trump’s nominees, their work is more or less done until November. Neither can Ryan be expected to speak his mind on the president if doing so would hurt the GOP’s electoral outlook.
“My guess is he’ll do what he can to help his party,” says Professor Green. “He may feel personally liberated, but I don’t think he’ll want to be known as the speaker who cost Republicans control of the House, either.”
Green warns that the party could get consumed by a leadership battle to replace Ryan. Although the speaker said he did not expect that to be decided until after the election, Green said that “if someone is even remotely ambitious, they will start counting [their] votes now.”
The top contenders at the moment appear to be House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California, and the party’s chief vote counter, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who nearly died in a mass shooting at a charity baseball practice last year.
Speaking with Politico on Wednesday, Ryan said he is done seeking elected office. But people are known to change their mind.
“Everybody has their time in the sun, and then sometimes they go rest for a while,” says Van Mobley, professor of history and economics at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisc. He is also the top elected official of the village of Thiensville, just north of Ryan’s district.
A Trump supporter, Mr. Mobley believes the president will be in office for another six years. “If I were Paul Ryan, I’d go and do something else for a while.”