Paul Ryan’s announcement today that he is not running for re-election is a sudden – though not entirely shocking – capstone to an eventful political career: vice presidential candidate, Budget Committee and Ways and Means Committee chair, Speaker of the House.
The word is that Ryan is leaving out of a desire to spend more time with his family – he has three school age children – and out of a sense of accomplishment, particularly last fall’s massive tax cut. But it’s no secret that Ryan was never in love with being Speaker. He had to be coaxed into the role when his predecessor John Boehner stepped down in 2015 and Republicans couldn’t agree on anyone else to replace him.
Ryan’s tenure as Speaker will be remembered for his ability to garner respect (albeit grudging at times) from all wings of his fractious party. But his speakership, and that of Boehner, reveal another important truth: there are really three parties in Washington. And none of them have a working majority.
There are the Democrats, of course, who are unified by a loathing of Donald Trump and essentially nothing else.
There are the Republicans, the establishment party of Wall Street and Big Business, supporters of robust international engagement and free trade.
And then there is that third party: nationalist, nativist, pro-gun, anti-trade. And very, very angry.
Born from the ashes of the Republicans’ 2008 electoral collapse, it first took shape as the Tea Party, riding a wave of fury over Obamacare and the financial bailout. The Republican Party co-opted this group long enough to secure a House majority in 2010 and a Senate majority in 2014. But like a parasite that subsumes its host, the Angry Party has all but conquered the GOP.
Despite a membership that is estimated at around just 30 or 40 members, the House Freedom Caucus – the institutional home of the Angry Party – has wielded undue influence over the House Republican Caucus. On issue after issue they have stymied efforts by Boehner and then Ryan to strike deals with Democrats and even Senate Republicans. They are credited (or blamed) for driving Boehner from the Speaker’s chair, and have made Paul Ryan’s life miserable ever since.
Of course, the Angry Party’s greatest triumph came in 2016, when Donald Trump, who channels the anger of the Angry Party better than anyone, not only won the Republican nomination, but saw the GOP coalesce around him. Other than a manic desire to slash taxes, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are as different in temperament and style as two people could possibly be,. Yet it was Ryan’s ally and fellow Badger Stater, Reince Priebus who as Chair of the Republican National Committee gave Trump legitimacy by getting the party behind him once the nomination was locked up. Ever since Trump’s election, Ryan has chosen a path of gently rebuking Trump when it was absolutely necessary, but otherwise working hand-in-hand with him on major issues.
For Ryan, as with Boehner, the political calculus has been clear: pass legislation backed by the Freedom Caucus and watch it die in the Senate, or secure Democratic support and risk being overthrown.
In that sense, both Ryan and Boehner were less leaders of a majority party, and more akin to prime ministers, cobbling together a coalition government of two separate parties who don’t particularly trust each other, but need each other to succeed. As most nations with parliamentary systems can attest, coalition governments are very hard to maintain over a long period of time.
Paul Ryan tried to keep the coalition together. But it’s hard when all the passion is with one side. And as Ryan joins the ever-growing list of establishment House Republicans not seeking re-election, the uncivil civil war between the Reductions and the Angries will enter a new phase. Undoubtedly, the next Republican leader will need to have the support of the Freedom Caucus. It is not out of the question that the next House Republican leader will actually be a member of the Freedom Caucus, giving the Angry Party control over two of the three policy-making centers of the federal government.
Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping they can keep their warring factions cohesive long enough to win back the House in November.
Either way, Paul Ryan’s greatest legacy might be being the last Republican Speaker of the House for a long time.
Photo: Gage Skidmore