Early in the morning of Wednesday, April 11th, Speaker of the House Paul Davis Ryan Jr. (R-Wis.) finally confirmed a long-implied rumor: he will not seek re-election in 2018.
It was hinted that after successfully passing a major tax cut law, one of Speaker Ryan’s longest-held lifetime goals, Ryan would see his time in Congress as coming to an end after accomplishing what he felt he needed to accomplish. In that sense, his announcement somewhat echoes the similar decision to retire by his predecessor, John Boehner (R-Ohio), who left Congress after fulfilling his own lifetime goal of bringing the Pope to speak to the United States Congress.
However, although his tenure as Speaker is even shorter than Boehner’s was, Ryan still ultimately manages to leave in a much less chaotic manner. Whereas Boehner resigned immediately after a Freedom Caucus-led rebellion, Ryan is stepping down of his own volition and will complete his final full term, with very few (if any) members of Congress actively seeking to oust him in the same manner.
The obvious and most immediate focus will go to the battle for succession that will undoubtedly be waged like a political version of the Hunger Games. Some of the Republicans whose names were juggled around in the chaotic 2015 Speaker election have already left the house; some have retired, like Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), John Kline (R-Minn.), and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), while others have since been appointed to positions in the Trump Administration, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Others have since announced their intentions to similarly retire in 2018, including Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Diane Black (R-Tenn.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).
This naturally leaves only the next two immediate members in line for leadership. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was the initial frontrunner in 2015, but opposition from the conservative wing forced him to withdraw. Since 2015, the number three Republican, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has seen his personal popularity soar after narrowly surviving the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting; at the same time, hailing from a decisively more red state than his two superiors, he is a loyal supporter of President Trump and a more staunch conservative on key issues such as immigration, and thus would likely be more popular among the base.
But that speculation is bound to continue and expand greatly in the coming days, weeks, and months as every other outlet rushes to cover the Speakership Games. So for right now, instead, I want to spend more time focusing on the man who is putting down the gavel rather than play a guessing game as to who will pick it up.
Rise to the Top
Now I’ll just come right out and say it: I really, really like Paul Ryan—I’ve always been a fan of him, even before he was selected to be Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. I first became aware of him through a viral video in which Ryan, then the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, ripped apart the then-unpassed Obamacare bill at an open meeting of Congress... with then-President Barack Obama sitting just a few feet away. Early on, I described him as perhaps the best possible combination of John Kennedy (for his youth and charisma) and Ronald Reagan (for his eloquence and broad comprehension of fiscal conservatism).
As such, I was thrilled to see the young, charismatic, and extremely intelligent Ryan selected to be the Republican Party’s nominee for the second-highest office in the land. I enjoyed watching Ryan demolish then-Vice President Joe Biden in the sole vice presidential debate. And I was equally devastated when the Republican ticket lost in November of 2012.
But Ryan persevered, and handily won re-election to his House seat from Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, which he had held since 1998. Admittedly, it was his smallest margin of victory up to that point... meaning that he won 55 percent of the vote instead of 57 percent or higher like every past race.
The following year, Ryan would work with Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to pass the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, which became the first budget bill to pass a divided Congress since 1986. This solidified Ryan’s ability to not only unite conservatives, but to make surprisingly successful bipartisan deals.
He would display this mastery of bipartisanship again just two years later, when he negotiated the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which repealed the atrocious No Child Left Behind law and severely weakened the government’s ability to enforce overly-arbitrary education standards such as Common Core. It passed with Republican and Democratic support, and was signed into law by President Obama in December of 2015. Even Vox admitted that this bill was a major victory for conservative education policy, returning more power towards local schools and away from the federal government.
The year 2015 proved to be the biggest of Ryan’s career, and it started off with him becoming the Chairman of yet another crucial committee: the House Ways and Means Committee. Although this chairmanship would be short-lived (a little over 10 months), the reasoning for this would be his biggest promotion ever.
As hinted above, the exit of Speaker John Boehner was a tumultuous affair. Although the Republicans had just increased their House majority and won back the Senate in the previous year, there was still intense division between the Congress and its leadership. After resisting previous attempts by the Freedom Caucus to oust him, Boehner finally caved and announced he would retire from both the Speakership and Congress as soon as his replacement was chosen.
Ryan’s name quickly arose as a possible successor. He said no, citing the still yet-to-be-done work with the Ways and Means Committee, as well as the possible toll that the Speakership would take on his family life, with his wife and three young children.
House Majority Leader McCarthy, the number two Republican in the House, was the initial frontrunner. But the Freedom Caucus did not like him any more than they liked Boehner, and similarly opposed McCarthy. Several Republican Congressmen also joined the race, including Bill Flores (R-Texas) and Chaffetz, then-Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Eventually, McCarthy dropped out.
Even after that, Ryan still said no for the same reasons.
A number of other prominent Republicans in leadership, including House Majority Whip Scalise, Chairman of the Benghazi Committee Trey Gowdy, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Jeb Hensarling, and Chair of the House Republican Conference Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), all declined the chance to run.
By that point, calls for Ryan to run significantly increased. He was supported by virtually all of the above declined candidates, the outgoing Speaker Boehner, and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He was even supported by then-candidate Donald Trump, and then-Chairman of the Freedom Caucus Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Finally, Ryan said he would reconsider his previous decision. He made clear that if he were to run, he wanted two things: time to spend with his family, and clear unity among the Republican Caucus. He would not accept winning a narrow 51 percent of the Freedom Caucus, and thus risking the same dysfunction that plagued Boehner’s speakership. To this end, he struck several hardline deals with the Freedom Caucus, including a pledge to not advance any immigration reform legislation for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. In a closed-door meeting of the Freedom Caucus, roughly two-thirds of the members voted to support Ryan in a potential speakership bid.
With overwhelming support from the leadership, moderates, and conservatives, Ryan was ready to change his mind. He announced his bid, and he won overwhelmingly—236 Republicans voted for him, while only 9 voted for the Freedom Caucus’s Daniel Webster (R-Fla.). He became the youngest Speaker since James Blaine of Maine in 1875, the first person from Wisconsin to ever hold the position, and he had taken over the largest House majority in the history of the Republican Party, with virtually all of the 245 Republicans in support of him.
Paul and Donald
Perhaps the greatest point of contention regarding Ryan’s entire career is his unusual dynamic with President Trump. Ryan, like many others in the Beltway, was very skeptical of Trump when he was still a candidate. But he too ultimately came around to supporting him once he was undoubtedly the nominee, for the good of the party. Ryan occasionally clashed with Trump over such moments as Trump’s criticism of the crooked Judge Curiel, or the fallout from the release of the Access Hollywood tape. Ryan also joked about the “Russia” conspiracy theory, with his joke being taken way too literally by the mainstream media.
But at the end of it all, they both supported and understood each other, putting their similarities over their differences. Ryan supported Trump in the final days, while Trump endorsed Ryan in his primary battle against the furiously anti-Semitic Paul Nehlen.
Since Trump took office, Ryan has proved himself to be one of the best friends that the President has in Congress. Although Ryan occasionally voiced disagreements on such issues as trade (which Ryan had no power over), he still ultimately did his job as Speaker and passed numerous bills that were high up on both the conservative and the Trump agenda. Through it all, Ryan managed to maintain a political balancing act and rode a fine line quite unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. He stood at the intersection of the two dominant ideologies of the Republican Party in the 2010’s: Tea Party conservatism and Trumpian National Populism.
Don’t forget that the House did its part in the doomed Obamacare repeal debate, passing the American Health Care Act before it ultimately died in the Senate. On immigration, the House under Ryan passed both Kate’s Law and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, and has been actively shoring up support for the ultra-hardline Securing America’s Future Act. Ryan also oversaw the passage of the Financial CHOICE Act, which would repeal the disastrous Dodd-Frank banking regulations, as well as a bill authorizing nationwide concealed-carry reciprocity.
The Senate may stand out more for its role in confirming President Trump’s nominees, from the Cabinet to the judiciary. But it should not be forgotten that on the legislative side, many truly amazing bills have passed through Ryan’s chamber, only to hit a great big wall in McConnell’s house and its excruciatingly narrow majority. These and other instances prove that, while frustration with the Republicans in Congress is definitely justified, most of the failures rest much more on the shoulders of the Senate than the House.
Ryan certainly was not one of the most vocal supporters of President Trump in Congress, far outpaced in that contest by such individuals as Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Representative Peter King (R-Iowa), and Representative Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). But he has undoubtedly done his job, keeping the Republicans of his house united and passing many more bills than the upper house.
Debt of Honor
As a loyal fan of Paul Ryan ever since 2010, I have taken plenty of criticism from both my far-right conservative friends (“He’s not conservative enough! He caves to Drumpf too much!”) and my fellow Trump-supporting National Populists (“He’s a globalist shill! He’s a corporate, establishment Republican who’s trying to stop Trump’s agenda!”)
As I have said before, Ryan’s entire career has been a balancing act. He supported the most crucial fights of the traditional Republican agenda (repealing Obamacare and Dodd-Frank) and aspects of the Trump agenda (particularly on immigration). His bipartisanship with Democrats passed the first successful budget deal in nearly 30 years, and also achieved what I consider to be one of the greatest policy victories of our time with the repeal of No Child Left Behind. He has maintained unity between conservatives and moderates, certainly more so than his predecessor. And being significantly younger than most other party leaders, he always managed to convey more hope and optimism than the old guard of establishment Republicans, like McConnell or the rest of the Senate leadership.
But above all else, whether you think his balancing act is successful politics or just ever-shifting opportunism, I think there should be one absolute that we can all agree on with Paul Ryan—he is a family man. In his announcement of retirement, he made it clear that his family still remains as significant of a factor in his decision-making as it did back when he was first approached to run for Speaker three years ago. Specifically, his children are all entering their teenage years, and he wants to be a present father during this time; this is something Ryan himself was deprived of, when his own father died of a heart attack when Ryan was only 16.
He made it a condition of becoming Speaker that he would still be allowed plenty of time to spend with his family, and that same family is the primary reason he is now relinquishing his position as the third most powerful man in America. He has never allowed the spotlight of the national stage, or the prestige of ultimate political power, to corrupt him and make him forget where he came from. After a full 20 years in Washington D.C., he has still remained just a man, rather than just another a career politician.
To that extent, beyond his political positions in the past, present, or future, one thing is clear as a result of this: Paul Ryan is an honorable man.
One needn’t look any further than Ryan’s age for proof of the amount of honor it took to make this decision. He became the second-youngest member of Congress when he was first elected in 1998, at only 28 years old. Just 17 years later, at the age of 45, Ryan became the youngest Speaker of the House in 140 years. At such a young age, with the full backing of the party leadership, security in his home district, and with a clearly-united Republican Caucus almost 100 percent behind him, he had the potential to become one of the longest-serving Speakers in American history.
This is not a very hard bar to surpass, with the longest-serving Republican Speaker (and fifth longest-serving Speaker overall) being Dennis Hastert, just shy of 8 years. The longest tenure is Democrat Sam Rayburn, with just over 17 years in the office. Even in the event that the Republicans lose control of the House, Ryan was still set to remain in leadership for as long as he wanted.
But even with the pages of the history books awaiting him, Paul Ryan decided to close the book much earlier than expected. With the end of the 115th Congress on January 3, 2019, Ryan will have held the Speakership for 3 years and 66 days, which will make him the 24th longest-serving Speaker (out of 57 Speakers total). Rather than entrench himself in power as firmly as possible, he has chosen to step down now that he feels he has accomplished all he has needed to, ready to return to being a father and a husband.
In the end, perhaps that final decision to quit while he was ahead rather than go too far and burn out (like past Speakers such as Gingrich, Hastert, and Boehner) may be what solidifies him as one of the most iconic members of Congress in American history. From his youth, to his 20-year tenure, to his leadership of two of the most powerful House committees, to his vice presidential run, to his Speakership during such a historic time for our country, Ryan has truly established himself as one of those rare few figures who come along once every generation or two and become a staple of American politics.
I am reminded of the words of Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) at the state funeral for Richard Nixon, when he said that “the second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon.” While Ryan may not have ultimately risen to the same levels as Nixon did, his consistent role in American politics for the first two decades of the 2000’s establishes his as a legacy more prominent than many other members of Congress who have come and gone during that same time. I believe he will be remembered just as easily as other major contemporary figures; not for ultimately negative reasons like Bush and Obama, but for more positive reasons like Trump.
In that sense, perhaps that one little slip-up by Obama back in 2012 was more fitting than one might think. In what was meant to be an attack on then-vice presidential nominee Ryan, Obama accidentally referred to him as “Jack Ryan.”
The character of Jack Ryan, the most famous character created by the great American author Tom Clancy, is perhaps the ultimate fictional personification of the American hero; he is a businessman who joins the Marines before becoming a CIA operative. A series of adventures, overseas battles, and political feuds help to elevate his position, before a catastrophic terrorist attack leads to him becoming President of the United States. Perhaps the best American counterpart to the fictional British spy James Bond, John Patrick Ryan is not a superhero who is eager to get involved in high-speed chases or intense shootouts, but just another American who cares deeply about his family and is thus reluctant to take power. However, he ultimately does what he must do for his country, despite the great risk to himself.
Paul Ryan, in his decision to retire, reminds us of what makes us all human: dedication to our families. He took the positions of power that he initially rejected when he realized that it was what his country needed, but he never forgot about the things that make him who he is. And for those same reasons, he is retiring from power and returning to the things that matter most. He is an extraordinary member of Congress, but at the end of the day, he is also just another American.