What Paul Ryan tried (and failed) to do for the GOP

Posted at 5:32 PM, Dec 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-19 19:42:18-05

House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered his farewell address to Congress on Wednesday, a predictable paean to the “wonders and opportunity” that serving in elected office afforded.

Which raised the obvious question: If this place is SO great, why are you leaving?

And this, less obvious answer: Because Ryan spent the last three years trying — and failing — to preserve some semblance of a Republican Party that stood distinct from President Donald Trump and that would survive and thrive when Trump was gone.

Think back to the fall of 2016. The “Access Hollywood” tape has emerged. Ryan, in triage mode, told his House colleagues that he would no longer “defend Donald Trump. Not now. Not in the future.” It was seen as a last-ditch attempt to save what was presumed to be a sinking Republican ship with Trump as its weighty anchor.

Then Trump won. And Ryan saw an opportunity. Trump had no real policy agenda to speak of, he believed in himself and his “gut” but little else. Ryan, who had policy proposals up the wazoo, would simply graft his views onto Trump’s agenda; he would be the policy machine of the presidency.

To accomplish that strategy, Ryan largely avoided significant public criticism of Trump. Yes, when Trump said something particularly egregious, Ryan would tut-tut. After Trump attacked cable TV anchor Mika Brzezinski for alleging “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” Ryan offered a measured amount of opprobrium; “Obviously, I don’t see that as an appropriate comment,” he offered.

But generally speaking, Ryan avoided the sort of public distancing from Trump that people like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker pursued. It was all under the theory that to get what Ryan wanted — a tax cut being the key item — he had to play nice with Trump at all costs. And that if he could make Trump enact the Ryan agenda, then there would be a policy backbone to conservative Republicanism that would survive Trumpism — no matter what the President said or did over his time in the White House.

That Faustian bargain, however, failed — as they so often do. In coddling Trump to get what he wanted, Ryan wound up effectively capitulating total and complete control over the idea of what it means to be a Republican to a man who, prior to running for president in 2016, had only the loosest affiliation with the GOP.

Consider what the Republican Party of 2014 — the Republican Party for Ryan and his 2012 presidential running mate Mitt Romney — stood for: shrinking the national debt by reining in out-of-control entitlement spending, a hawkish foreign policy based on the idea that the United States.needed to lead in the world and a commitment to protecting the family unit — and its moral structure — at all costs.

Now, think about where the party sits: With a President actively uninterested in deficits and debt (Trump wants $5 billion for a border wall!!!), who has pushed an isolationist foreign policy and who makes no secret of his disdain for the idea of the presidency as a position of moral leadership.

Ryan’s fundamental mistake was the belief that he could orbit around the black hole that is Trump and never be swallowed by it. That he could manage Trump for his own means. That he could take lemons and make lemonade.

He leaves, like so many establishment Republicans before him, defeated at the feet of Trump. Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party has been made complete in the last two years. And that takeover came directly at the expense of the likes of Ryan, and the others who ran things before Trump arrived on the scene.

The Point: Ryan walks away from Congress and a Republican Party that he barely recognizes — even from what it looked like four years ago. That is a defeat for a man who many saw as one of the next great leaders of the Republican movement. A big one.