Analysis: What Ryan's Retirement Means

Posted: Apr 11, 2018 2:05 PM

It was an announcement that shocked Washington -- but not really.  Rumors that Paul Ryan was eyeing the exits to spend more time with his family in Wisconsin have been percolating since well before the 2016 election, and only intensified in recent months.  His office's carefully-worded, non-categorical denials may have bought them some time, but failed to quell the speculation.  And now the whispers have been confirmed: Mr. Ryan's going home.  He'll serve out the remainder of his current House term, as Speaker, then step aside.  Here are his remarks from this morning:

It's hard to argue with Ryan's rationale.  His current position -- which he did not seek -- is demanding and exhausting, soaking up much of his time and energy.  He has three teenagers at home, and the memory of losing his own father when he was in his teens certainly weighs on him (his dad's sudden death is also big part of the reason why Ryan is a fitness fanatic).  He also made the point that the easier or safer political play in this scenario would have been to run for re-election (he was a shoo-in to once again win comfortably), then announce his retirement shortly thereafter.  But doing so, he said, would have constituted a misrepresentation to the people of his district, so he's pulling the trigger now.  I have gotten to know the Speaker a bit over the years and I believe him to be an earnest, honest man of integrity.  I do not doubt that these were the primary motivators behind his decision.  But in politics, multiple factors often play into major choices made by high profile figures.  My strong suspicion is that, at least to some extent, a few additional considerations were lingering in the background of Ryan's mind -- and each has significant political or policy implications:

(1) Ryan insists that he's confident that he'll hand the gavel to the next Republican Speaker, but that's something that he almost literally has to say.  He's been a prodigious fundraiser for the party, and he knows that his announcement is going to spook donors who are shelling out dollars to help protect the House majority. Expressing anything other than an unwavering expectation of a winning outcome would turn strong jitters into outright panic.  But the fact is that the GOP has an increasingly daunting challenge ahead of it.  After the Pennsylvania special election (in which a Democrat captured a district Trump carried by nearly 20 points), Democrats need to net 24 House seats to win back the chamber.  That almost exactly mirrors the number of Hillary-won districts currently occupied by Republican Congressmen.  There's a lot of low-hanging fruit.  At this point, I doubt political oddsmakers are seriously putting the over/under for Democratic gains at 24 anymore; that number is creeping higher.  Granted, winds could shift again, but the president's mediocre-at-best popularity, coupled with historical trends, point to a blue swing.  And no matter what he says, Ryan's exit will portend a heavy blue swing in the minds of many.  Let's face it: The notion of sliding back into the minority, especially with a fractured party eager to assign blame, couldn't have been attractive to Ryan.

(2) Among the most concerned people in DC are antsy Republican incumbents who've been nervously watching a stream of their colleagues decide to call it quits rather than stand for re-election.  On Fox this morning, I predicted that Ryan's retirement would almost certainly not be the last because other waverers in the conference would view it as a strong indicator that it's time to walk away.  As soon as I checked my phone after the segment, I tweets like this flooded into my feed:

The smart money says that Ross won't be the last one.

(3) In his Q&A earlier today, Ryan's only specific mention of regret was his inability to shepherd through sweeping entitlement reform legislation, even though he "normalized" the concept and was able to push it through the House.  Ryan's ideological commitment to reforming our big entitlement programs that are the primary fuelers of our building debt crisis has been crucial and courageous.  His leadership on that front was indispensable and undeniable.  Knowing how Ryan operates, I truly believe that if he felt like he had a realistic chance to advance that cause in a meaningful way over the next two-plus years, he would have much more seriously looked at sticking around.  His departure suggests to me that he's concluded -- rightly and demoralizingly -- that even if the GOP managed to salvage their majorities, his efforts on this important front would only meet with more frustration.  That's a policy point that may reverberate beyond one election cycle, and it should worry anyone who's concerned about the "mandatory" spending-driven debt math. Alas, tax reform became the attainable major accomplishment, Ryan helped attain it, then calculated that the time had arrived to relinquish power (especially because getting asked by reporters about presidential controversies and tweets everyday likely got tiresome long ago).  For a more explicitly cynical look at the policy piece of this puzzle, read Phil Klein.

(4) Finally, the tributes and accolades are rolling in on social media, from Ryan's 2012 running mate (and soon-to-be Senator), to President Trump, to Ryan's Democratic counterpart.  But I'll leave you with some words from Mitch McConnell, and I'll explain why after the jump:

McConnell mentions Ryan's unflagging cheerfulness "amid all the stresses and pressures of leadership," a dynamic that the Kentuckian knows well.  The Senate Majority leader understands firsthand how difficult it can be to wrangle votes from members ranging from Susan Collins to Rand Paul, and appreciates the similar tensions and challenges Ryan has faced down the hall.  McConnell hasn't been bashful about signaling that there's likely a tough election coming for his party, openly discussing not whether the results will be bad, but how bad.  When Axios broke the Ryan story this morning, they included this insight from a top Republican, which I think is right: "The announcement will help Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his fundraising because 'the Senate becomes the last bastion.'"  Even in a difficult national environment, the Senate map is so favorable to Republicans this year that even a fairly poor showing could still result in a narrow GOP majority.  The stakes on presidential appointments, especially to the judiciary, are high.  Gridlock is the likeliest path forward for Congress until at least 2021.  Whether Republicans have the opportunity to help reshape the courts with the president's nominees over that valuable time period could depend on whether the likes of Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin can parlay a potentially brutal GOP year into squeaking through despite their states' strong red tint.

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