Politics

Paul Ryan’s Fitting End

A farewell press conference distills a disappointing career.

Paul Ryan stands behind a podium.
House Speaker Paul Ryan addresses the news conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill where he announced he would not seek re-election in November.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

I always liked Paul Ryan. Six years ago, when he was tapped as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, I wrote him a love letter. Then, when I scrutinized his record, I had to take the letter back. He sees himself as a statesman, but that’s not what he is.

Wednesday morning, Ryan announced that he’ll retire from the House in January. His press conference lasted just nine minutes. But in that short time, Ryan distilled a career of piety, cowardice, and disappointment. He demonstrated the difference between a man of principle and a politician who thinks he’s a man of principle.

In his prepared remarks, Ryan told the press:

Some of you wonder why I can’t just do the normal politician thing, which is to run and then retire after the election. That is what I’m told is the politically shrewd thing to do. I considered that. But just as my conscience is what got me to take this job in the first place, my conscience could not handle going out that way. I pledged to serve the people of Wisconsin, the 1st District, honorably. And in order to serve the people of my district honorably, I have to serve them honestly. And for me to ask them to vote to re-elect me, knowing that I wasn’t going to stay is not being honest. I simply cannot do that. So that’s why I’m announcing this today.

Conscience. Pledged. Honorably. Honest. All these words are gratuitous. Ryan’s decision to retire at the end of his term is, in fact, the shrewd course. If he were to seek re-election, he would risk defeat in a blue wave. If he managed to survive, and if Republicans kept control of the House, their losses would still jeopardize his speakership. So there’s no courage in his decision not to run. Only a fool or a cad would take that risk and then, if he won, betray his constituents by leaving afterward. Yet Ryan praises himself for not doing so. He sees himself as a man of high standards precisely because his standards are so low.

After delivering his remarks, Ryan took a question about the fiscal crisis he has created:

Q: Mr. Speaker, you got your long-sought tax-cuts and tax-reform legislation approved, which you say you consider to be your greatest achievement. However, you’re not sticking around for its biggest consequence, which is trillion-dollar deficits as far as the Congressional Budget Office’s eye can see. What’s your response to that?

Ryan: So, entitlement reform is the one thing, the one other great thing that I’ve spent most of my career working on. I am extremely proud of the fact that the House passed the biggest entitlement reform bill ever considered in the House of Representatives. Do I regret the fact that the Senate did not pass this? Yes. But I feel from all the budgets that I’ve passed normalizing entitlement reform, pushing the cause of entitlement reform, and the House passing entitlement reform, I’m very proud of that fact.

Ryan has just engineered and passed into law two monstrosities. One is a massive tax-cut bill that wasn’t paid for by spending cuts. The other is a massive spending bill that wasn’t paid for by tax increases. There’s no mathematical universe, on the left or right, in which that combination can be excused. Rather than take responsibility, Ryan blames the Senate for not passing entitlement cuts that he willingly separated from those two bills. And he credits himself for “normalizing” entitlement reform, which is a nice way of saying that he talked about it a lot, and that he voted for it in bills he knew would never pass, but that he never did the work necessary to enact it.

The next reporter asked:

Q: Mr. Speaker, did the chance that you might not be speaker come November, if Democrats possibly take the House, factor at all into this decision?

Ryan: No. None whatsoever, actually. … This really was two things: I have accomplished much of what I came to do, and my kids aren’t getting any younger. And if I stay, they’re only going to know me as a weekend dad. And that’s just something I consciously can’t do.

It’s great that Ryan wants to be with his kids. But they’re teenagers now. Having chosen to spend 16 years in Congress while they were small, he asks us to believe that he has suddenly decided they need him in a way that requires him to retire. And he denies that this year’s inauspicious polls, which have driven dozens of other Republicans to leave Congress, played any role in his decision. He injects the word consciously, quite consciously, for heroic effect.

The next reporter asked about the effect of Ryan’s announcement on the midterms. Ryan seized on this question to extol President Donald Trump. “I’m grateful for the president [giving] us this chance to actually get this stuff done,” said Ryan. “I’m grateful that we have unified government that the president, with this victory, gave us.” Another reporter asked: “To what extent was your decision influenced by the way President Trump has changed the character of Washington and the character of Republican Party?” Ryan replied: “Not at all. Like I said, I’m grateful to the present for giving us this opportunity.”

This completes Ryan’s capitulation. When Trump first ran for president, Ryan shunned him. But as Trump surged to the front of the Republican pack, Ryan found reasons to embrace him. “If I lead a schism in our party, then I’m guaranteeing that a liberal progressive becomes president,” he told reporters in June 2016. To reject Trump, Ryan argued, would be to “disrespect the voters, the Republican primary voters of America.” When Ryan was asked about Trump’s proposal to shut down Muslim immigration, he shrugged: “Look, no two people agree on everything.”

Since Trump entered the White House, Ryan has enabled and defended him at every turn.
Ryan has pledged not even to allow a floor vote on any bill Trump wouldn’t sign. He has yielded to Trump’s authoritarian maneuvers, excusing the president’s decision to fire then–FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the Russia investigation Trump wanted to shut down. And now Ryan shrugs off calls for legislation to protect the investigation’s new leader, special counsel Robert Mueller, despite Trump’s clear signals that he wants to fire Mueller too.

Trump “has been openly talking about firing Bob Mueller, potentially firing the deputy attorney general,” a reporter pointed out as the press conference neared its end. “What are your thoughts on that?” Ryan batted the question away. “I have no reason to believe that that’s going to happen,” he said, adding, “I have assurances.” When the reporter asked Ryan why he was so confident, the speaker replied: “Because I’ve been talking to people in the White House about it.”

That’s a fitting coda to Ryan’s speakership. After more than a year of overt corruption and Trump’s assaults on every institution that might constrain him—courts, the Justice Department, the special counsel, the filibuster, the press—the speaker of the House declares that the legislative branch doesn’t need to constrain these assaults, because it has assurances from the very White House that is waging them. The vacancy Ryan leaves behind isn’t his office. It’s the hollowness of what he claimed to be.

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Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.