BY GRANT BONHAM
Across the internet, jovial tweets and exclamations erupted at the news that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan withdrew from the possibility of re-election. Former Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka hailed, “GOOD RIDDANCE,” in usual capitalized fashion while populist Democratic candidate Randy Bryce – who is seeking to replace Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st – clamoured, “WE JUST REPEALED PAUL RYAN.” At both ends of the political spectrum, the self-proclaimed “winners” of Ryan’s announcement cheered and claimed that their actions led to his defeat.
Trumpian activists decried Ryan’s globalist agenda and viewed his existence atop the Republican chain of command as a pointed infestation of Koch Brother influence. Those on the left saw Ryan’s announcement as a fearful confirmation of a swelling democratic influence, in the form of Randy Bryce. But while both political parties were happy, they were misled by Ryan’s departure. Ryan got what he wanted: he is happy with the work he has done, and he is leaving office right at the climax of his political career. There is no doubt that Ryan will spend more time with his kids, but that is not why he is leaving. Ryan is leaving office because the political fight is going to get tougher for him. By leaving while he is on top, Ryan can avoid a losing battle that would have him watch his party and his country collapse.
Ryan has been direct in his political agenda. His policy platform has always included three core goals: tax cuts for the wealthy (donors) and large corporations, deregulation for businesses, and government spending cuts via the reduction of social welfare benefits. His other goals, like a stronger military and a balanced budget, always took a back seat to his economic and corporate interests. Since the 2016 elections, Ryan has been chalking up wins thanks to his Republican majority.
The early days of the Trump White House were informed by Ryan’s agenda. With healthcare reform failing in the Senate, tax reform began to take shape. Military funding has increased while funding for social programs has decreased. Since Trump’s inauguration, his entire agenda, has moved at the pace Ryan sets. This is a reversal of norms: typically, when a single party controls both the Congress and the presidency, the president sets the agenda. In this case, where Trump claims victories, Ryan has already planted the seeds. Trump has conceded legislative pressure and authority to Ryan’s “policy wonk“ persona and has spent a majority of his presidency shouting from the bully pulpit rather than playing necessary political chess with Congress.
Regulation at all levels of government has loosened over the last two years, and the “Ryan America” is washing over all fifty states. For the anti-globalist, anti-immigration hero that the far right celebrates in Trump, the president has certainly caved to a more digestible conservative America than he campaigned on. Tax cuts for the wealthy don’t have a history of stimulating wages for middle or low skill workers, but they do benefit Ryan’s wealthiest donors. And while Trump’s recent tariffs go against Ryan’s agenda, they could still be undone by Congress at the will of Ryan and a minority of Democrats. The “Great” America Trump campaigned on is only permissible as long as it fits within the America Ryan wants.
Paul Ryan’s retirement is a gift to himself for a job well done: he duped the U.S. President into enforcing his exact agenda, and did so without taking any of the heat. Consistently, Ryan and the conservative elitist brass have been criticized for their hand in promoting the rise of Trump: bowing to him in the elections and not properly dismissing his actions. But if the economy slows, it is the President who will be blamed, not Ryan. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric and outrageous behavior will always seem more outlandish than Ryan’s conservative candor, making Trump an easy scapegoat and Trump is exactly the scapegoat Ryan needed. Trump gave Ryan a Republican Congress and will continue to take the blame for any national problems because he was the leader of this movement. As frustrating as Trump has been for many Republicans, he has gifted conservatives like Ryan a few years of lower taxes in a time where such sweeping political victories are often rare.
In cutting taxes and government spending, Ryan never managed the Libertarian ideologies favored by his Freedom Caucus colleagues. In fighting for government deregulation he never quite adjusted into the Trump formula; he held onto his corporate roots and billionaire backers. Ryan, while in office, was a fixture of a long-processed American conservatism that, while subdued, is certainly not dead. There is a reason tax reform came first: Paul Ryan wanted it to. There is a reason immigration reform and other nascent legislative priorities are stalling: it is because they are not his biggest battles to fight. Ryan has been playing political calculus over Trump and the Democrat’s comparatively simple math, taking political victories along the way and leaving before his job gets tougher than it is worth. Ryan is leaving a winner, and nobody can claim victory over his decision to withdraw from election other than himself.