The world finally caught on to Paul Ryan's game last week.
The speaker of the House might not survive his inability to find enough Republicans to vote for his deeply unpopular and poorly crafted American Health Care Act—a gratuitously cruel bill that Donald Trump, for no apparent reason, had embraced so completely that Ryan's bill became Trump's bill (TrumpRyanCare, as I called it) and Ryan's failure became Trump's failure.
One of Trump's strongest supporters on Fox News (which is filled with people vying to be Trump's strongest supporter) immediately called for Ryan to go. The editors of The New York Times paired their scathing criticism of Ryan with a brilliant caricature showing Ryan as a tiny head on top of an oversized suit. I have been calling Ryan an empty suit for years, so that one was especially fun to see.
I am not predicting that Ryan will actually be taken down by this latest display of his emptiness. I have no greater predictive powers about such matters than anyone else, and if I possessed such powers, I would be inclined to use them for better purposes. Instead, I want to explain why Ryan should want to treat this situation not as a threat but as an opportunity to leave Congress.
Politicians are notoriously short-term thinkers, and even though Ryan has always pretended to be a big picture, long-term strategist, he has shown no greater ability or inclination than his colleagues to transcend the moment-by-moment reactive behavior of any ambitious political hack. If he could force himself to think strategically, however, he might conclude that this is a good time to go, and that he could gain more than he loses by doing so.
The most obvious upside of leaving Congress would be that Ryan would no longer have to be, as I described him recently, Donald Trump's "chew toy." From the primaries onward, Ryan has found himself having to backtrack from his occasional criticisms of Trump, and he mostly spends his time now avoiding talking about Trump's outrageous presidency.
For example, after Trump issued his Muslim immigration ban in January, Ryan reportedly "released a statement on Friday praising the order, but his aides repeatedly declined requests for further comment." Ryan seems to spend more time claiming that he is not paying attention to Trump than it would take to pay attention to Trump.
Moreover, as noted above, Ryan's free ride in the press looks like it has finally hit its expiration date. He used to enjoy coverage from respected journalists who could not stop themselves from writing fluff like this:
With his youthful earnestness, genial personality and devotion to conservative policy, Paul Ryan enjoyed a special stature within GOP even before he became House speaker late last year.
Almost no one—certainly not the author of the article linked in the paragraph above—bothered to notice that Ryan routinely stated as fact demonstrably false things about Social Security and Medicare's "bankruptcy," or that Ryan talks about how we must "tackle our debt crisis" even though there is no debt crisis—and even if there were one, all of Ryan's plans would make it worse.
Some liberal-leaning commentators, of course, saw through Ryan from the beginning. Paul Krugman might be the only person who has written more negative things about Ryan than I have. Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein have taken more measured tones, but they had figured out Ryan's con at least as early as 2012.
Interestingly, however, it is not the long-obvious emptiness of Ryan's "serious policy guy" image that has finally put his career on the line. Apparently, his big sin is that after slapping together an unpopular bill, he made his president look bad by failing to get Republicans to vote for it.
If anything, Trump should be thanking Ryan for being unable to deliver the votes. Nothing good politically was going to happen for any Republican if the House had passed the bill, starting with a huge intra-party civil war in the Senate and—if the bill somehow became law—hanging ownership of every complaint about health care on Trump and the Republicans forevermore.
I guess we should not be surprised that the Republicans have already started talking about having another run at the repeal-and-replace windmill. And if Ryan stays on, he will surely put his transparently regressive policy preferences into a bill that will improve Democrats' political fortunes whether it passes or not.
If he left office, Ryan could relieve himself of a lot of headaches and still get out before his carefully crafted image is destroyed.
But Ryan is still only 47 years old, and he knows nothing but Beltway life, having been in the House since 1999 (before his 29th birthday) and having served on political staffs and right-wing D.C. think tanks before that. What would he do if he were to stop messing up his job as speaker of the House? Run for president, of course.
Given his addiction to political power, it seems unlikely that Ryan would be satisfied making big money as a Wall Street consultant, in the manner of Ryan's former "young guns" colleague Eric Cantor. Ryan is dedicated to helping rich people become richer at the expense of everyone else, not to becoming rich himself.
But the obvious model for Ryan would be another former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Like Gingrich, Ryan would be leaving office as a fallen star of his party who had become expendable when his weaknesses caused Republicans to feel distress.
Like Gingrich, Ryan can still nurture his unearned reputation for being his party's Ideas Guy. I do not have many good things to say about Maureen Dowd, the op-ed columnist for The New York Times, but I still enjoy her comment about Gingrich from 2011: "He prides himself, after all, on being a man of ideas. It is rarely mentioned that the ideas are mostly chuckleheaded."
And so it is with Ryan, who is if anything even worse on substance than Gingrich, if that is possible.
Even so, Gingrich's afterlife has been surprisingly robust. Incredibly, he was one of the last men standing in the 2012 Republican primaries. It is true that his longevity in that campaign derived mostly from having a sugar daddy, but there is no reason to think that Ryan could not find someone even sweeter, given how much work he has done for the billionaires of the world.
The most important difference, however, is that Gingrich has always been openly abrasive. When I asked, in a column title in late 2011, "Will Americans Elect an Unbearably Pompous President?" there was no shortage of material to demonstrate Gingrich's unlikability. Ryan, by contrast, has always gotten ahead by looking sincere and claiming to care about people. Many, many people fall for it.
If Ryan has any thoughts about becoming president—and who doubts that he does?—running as a former speaker who was wrongly blamed for the failures of an orange-hued blowhard is not a bad position from which to start. And not having a day job makes it all easier.
In the meantime, Ryan can continue to tell stories about how he helped to prevent Hillary Clinton's imaginary socialist takeover, and the press will quickly revert to their reverential treatment of his every utterance, no matter his laughable lack of expertise or substance. The lecture circuit is a very forgiving place.
Ryan's alternative is to wait until his Republican colleagues dump him unceremoniously for not doing everything they want him to do. He has decades in which to make a political comeback, during which time he might want to be governor of Wisconsin (and enough Wisconsinites might actually vote for him).
Either that or he can stay on as Trump's chew toy, waiting for the inevitable day when he is no longer a tasty morsel and is thrown into the garbage.
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.
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