Some politicians fit their era perfectly; others are born out of their time.
Donald Trump — embodying the spirit of Richard Nixon by way of Pat Buchanan — is the master of his low, cruel, dishonest moment. Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan — inspired by Ronald Reagan by way of Jack Kemp — has been lost and disoriented. His career-ending confrontation with Trump represents the end of a more hopeful and humane era. Ryan’s exit is further evidence that the GOP’s dark side has won. For now.
Taking his career as a whole, Ryan has been the heir of Kemp in many of the good ways without the bad. “He has been the last of the cheerful conservatives,” observes National Affairs’ Yuval Levin, “an immigration optimist, a growth and opportunity supply-sider, genuinely concerned about the poor and disadvantaged.” Unlike Kemp, Ryan understood massive public debt as an unconscionable burden on the future, and supported long-term entitlement reform that would have shifted burdens to Ryan’s own generation for the benefit of generations that follow.
But the mismatch of Ryan and his times has been increasingly evident and unsustainable. He has tried to be aspirational in a party grown gloomy and angry. He has a moderate temperament in a party lurching toward disturbing extremes. He has remained a 1980s supply-sider in a very different economy — meaning that his culminating achievement, the 2017 tax cut, was the last gasp of old Republican economic thinking rather than the start of something new. Ryan’s more welcoming attitude toward immigrants has been repudiated by the base of his party. His rhetorical emphasis on helping the poor has remained largely rhetorical.
And Ryan tragically miscalculated in his relationship with Trump.
Ryan’s bet on cooperation was not irrational — or, at least, would not have been irrational with a rational partner. He clearly thought Trump could be appeased, managed, stroked and flattered into irrelevance while the real work of conservative governance could go forward in Congress. It often fell to the speaker to call the president with explanations of the president’s own policy positions. Ryan decided to join the staff of adult daycare. Rather than alienating Trump, he would try to ignore the insane tweet du jour and focus on doing his job.
In practice, this meant ignoring the primary way that Trump communicates with the country, the world, Congress and his own White House staff. It made Ryan seem disconnected from political reality and complicit in outrage after outrage. His silence was taken as permission or cowardice.
Ryan’s bet was not winnable. Trump’s slavery to impulse makes managing him an impossible task. The president’s aggressive ignorance on issues such as health care has consistently complicated the legislative process. In fact, Trump has publicly and personally attacked many Republican legislators and often used the GOP-controlled Congress as a political foil. All this has gotten worse over time, as the president has become more accustomed to power and less tolerant of dissent. In Trump, a total lack of governing skill is now matched with complete confidence in his own instincts.
God help us. Clearly, Paul Ryan could not. The speaker, like many others, underestimated the power of the presidency to shape and define the GOP. Trump’s influence is now pervasive — leaving many Republican legislators privately contemptuous of the president and publicly silent or supportive. Given the base’s enthusiasm for Trump, many elected Republicans now feel they must choose between hypocrisy and political suicide. There is a third choice: Leave politics entirely. I suspect Ryan is not the last Republican who will exercise this option.
Taken in isolation, many of Ryan’s decisions to avoid confrontation with the president made political sense. Taken together, they lead to a sad conclusion. We needed Ryan to resist Trump’s norm busting, his strategy of dehumanization, his assault on institutions, his thinly veiled racism, his trashing of our civic culture. We needed Ryan to be a voice of conscience in the age of Trump. And he refused to play that role.
It is hard to fault a man for failing to be a hero. But Ryan will not be judged by history for his agenda of tax cuts, increased military spending and deregulation. He will be remembered as the Republican leader who could not prevent Donald Trump’s total takeover of the GOP. In many ways, Ryan was the best of his party. It was not nearly enough.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.