As anybody with even a glancing familiarity with US politics might've guessed, Paul Ryan's decision to leave Congress - not to mention his position as Speaker of the House, a job that left him third in line to the presidency - was heavily influenced by his frustration with President Trump - a man whom he once disinvited to a gathering in Ryan's Congressional district after the "grab her by the p***y" bombshell dropped.
At least, that's what Politico surmised in a long-winded profile about Ryan that examines his rise in Washington from a Capitol Hill intern to leader of the Ways and Means Committee to vice presidential candidate and then, finally, speaker. In the words of an anonymous confidant quoted in the piece, Ryan has been suffering from a severe case of "Trump fatigue."
That seems like a lifetime ago. Ryan once dreamed of defeating Trump; he has since merely hoped to contain him. The gentleman from Wisconsin has spent the bulk of his speakership babysitting a president whose intemperate instincts and deficit of fundamental policy knowledge threaten to derail the party—and potentially the government and the country—at any moment. Ryan has grown weary of keeping watch. He confided to friends that while spending more time with family was the No. 1 motivator behind his exit, Trump fatigue was a close runner-up.
Trump won’t be Ryan’s problem for much longer. Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, the speaker’s top lieutenants, have been shadowboxing for months and officially touched gloves Wednesday morning in a private meeting aimed at facilitating unity. It won’t last. Election Day is seven long months away, and factions are already emerging as the two men jockey—among donors, lobbyists and their fellow members—for support as the next Republican leader. One thing is certain: As McCarthy and Scalise campaign to lead the House GOP, they will do so as Trump Republicans. It’s his party now, without question or caveat.
Ryan told me last fall that the fractures in the Republican Party threatened to make governing impossible. “We basically run a coalition government,” he complained, “without the efficiency of a parliamentary system.” This was the story of John Boehner’s speakership. But the truth is, those internecine breakages are not what they used to be. The GOP has largely fallen in line since Trump’s nomination and election. And that means when historians ask the obvious questions—How did the party of fiscal sanity become the party of the biggest spending increase in modern history? How did the party of family values become the party of “grab them by the pussy”? How did the party of compassionate conservatism become the party of Muslim bans?—the answers will implicate not just Trump, but Ryan and other Republicans as well.
But perhaps the most ironic thing about this is that Trump and Ryan's partnership, rooted in what Politico sanctimoniously described as a "Faustian Bargain" has been amazingly successful. It allowed Ryan to accomplish two of his most long-sought goals: Passing tax reform and trashing Obamacare.
This was “Paul’s deal with the devil,” a phrase used by several of the speaker’s confidants in the days following Trump’s shocking triumph. Reince Priebus, his old friend and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, had told Ryan on Election Day that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, and Ryan was prepared to give a speech soon afterward divorcing himself—and the party—from Trump once and for all. Instead, the speaker found himself staring down a Faustian bargain. Republicans had seized total control of Washington. And he might, over the next two years, have a chance to pursue the legislation of his dreams: repealing Obamacare, rewriting the tax code, reforming entitlement programs and rebuilding the military. But it would be possible only if he partnered with the very man whose offenses were so manifest that Ryan disinvited him from his own Wisconsin congressional district a month before the election.
Their alliance turned out to be stronger than anyone in either camp could have anticipated. Ryan carefully avoided criticizing the president while offering frequent elementary tutoring sessions on policy and process behind closed doors, grumbling only to a handful of close friends about the task; Trump reciprocated the speaker’s restraint and spared him of the sort of public shaming doled out to other Republicans, including Senate leader Mitch McConnell. By this metric—and considering the two major triumphs of his tenure, tax reform and boosted military funding—some allies will argue that Ryan’s shotgun marriage with Trump, and his speakership on the whole, was a success. “Paul will go down in history as having achieved more in a shorter period of time than any speaker of the House,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the speaker’s longtime friend, told me.
In the piece, Politico recalls how Ryan was perhaps the most reluctant Speaker of the House in recent memory, and that his political allies dragged him "kicking and screaming" into filling the post following John Boehner's decision to walk away.
From the moment he arrived in Washington—first as a college intern from the University of Miami-Ohio, and later as a waiter, think-tanker, Hill staffer and, ultimately, a member of Congress—Ryan had his sights on the House Ways and Means Committee. He had finally became chairman in early 2015, and it cannot be overstated just how sincerely Ryan loathed the idea of leaving that perch to become speaker of the House. Never in the modern era, and perhaps not in American history, has someone been dragged kicking and screaming into the most powerful position in Congress. It took weeks of frantic phone calls—from McCarthy, Priebus, Boehner, Mitt Romney, even Cardinal Timothy Dolan—to talk him into it, and even then he was reluctant. “Paul really didn’t want this job, although he accepted the fact that he had to do it. At the time, there was exactly one person in the Congress who could get 218 votes,” Boehner told me Wednesday morning. “And while I think he accepted the difficulty of being speaker, I’m not sure that he really enjoyed the job all that much.”
Still, while Politico makes the case that Ryan has no interest in a White House bid, we imagine that assessment might be premature: After all, he did agree to be Mitt Romney's running mate back in 2012. And seeming unwilling to take a job that nearly every member of the Republican establishment believes he'd be perfect for has worked out for Ryan in the past.
We imagine Ryan won't be sitting idle in Janesville for long. After all, if Democrats take back the White House in 2020, the opportunity to clinch the nomination to be the next Republican president would only be eight years away.