WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced Wednesday that he would not seek re-election in November, prompting the normal convulsions of Washington praise for Ryan and his “legacy.”
President Donald Trump tweeted that no one could question Ryan’s “legacy of achievement,” and Ryan himself said he was proud of all the things he had accomplished as speaker, namely the tax cuts he helped push through last year and the big increases to military spending he oversaw last month.
But aside from a failed policy agenda — which you can read about here — Paul Ryan’s real legacy will always be this: A feckless leader who oversaw Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and of Congress.
For all the posturing Ryan did in May 2016 about how he wasn’t ready to endorse Trump, for all the light rebukes of racism or the vacillating support after the Access Hollywood tape, the speaker led reluctant Republicans right to Trump’s feet.
Perhaps no person has done as much to normalize or enable Trump as Ryan, because everyone implicitly believed the speaker might stand up at some point and that it might matter. In so many ways, Ryan was supposed to be the anti-Trump. His squeaky-clean looks and talking points temperament run completely counter to a man who seemingly says and does whatever he wants.
Paul Ryan’s real legacy will always be this: A feckless leader who oversaw Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and of Congress.
Ryan toyed so many times with not backing Trump during the campaign: After denouncing Trump’s proposed Muslim ban; after calling Trump’s attacks on a judge of Mexican descent “textbook” racism; after saying he wouldn’t campaign for a man so proud of his ability to “grab them by the pussy.”
And yet, by the very end of the campaign, Ryan found a way to support him. And once Trump was elected, Ryan found new ways to accept the president’s abuses. He made excuses that Trump was “new at this.” He watched the House Intelligence Committee become a partisan circus amid serious questions about Russian interference in U.S. elections. And he stood by silently, ignoring the tweets ― even joking about ignoring the tweets ― as Trump has lied, attacked the media and debased the presidency on a near-daily basis.
Paul Ryan’s name is now synonymous with the cowardice of the Republican Party. Even when Trump’s policies directly contradicted the GOP, like they have with free trade or government spending, Ryan found a way to fuse Trump’s stark vision with one that might be palatable to Republicans. And even when Trump insisted that, no, he meant exactly what he said, like he did after Ryan insisted on a “scalpel” approach to tariffs, Ryan backed away from directly standing up to the president.
That’s been a price Ryan was willing to pay. Trump has been the empty vessel that Ryan desired to sign Republican policies, like the tax cuts he touts as a major rewrite of the tax code. And Trump’s lack of involvement in crafting policies like those in the massive $1.3 trillion omnibus bill was key to its passage. (Trump didn’t get his border wall, but he never seemed to truly understand that. And the huge increases in spending that might have given another Republican president pause were quickly accepted when aides told Trump that vetoing the bill might result in him catching blame for a shutdown and having to miss a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. “Fuck that,” the president said, according to The Wall Street Journal.)
But part of Ryan’s legacy should also be in the disappearing role of Congress. Where the Trump administration could have used rigorous oversight, Republican lawmakers have taken a cue from the speaker and just accepted the president’s business dealings as unworthy of investigation. The Oversight Committee is uninterested in examining why Cabinet secretaries are flying around on private jets or in first class, or how they’re renting Capitol Hill apartments from lobbyists for $50 per night.
Despite the president’s decision to launch a missile strike against Syria once before and now threatening more military engagement in the coming days, there hasn’t been a single hearing on the legal justification for that war. Ryan came into the speakership saying he’d like to vote on a new Authorization for Use of Military Force to fight the self-described Islamic State, but a new AUMF vote never came. He wouldn’t even allow the debate, just as he’s blocked legislation to permanently fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program that Trump canceled last year.
While it’s not new for a speaker to stymie certain legislation, Ryan has taken the job to new heights. During his entire speakership, there has been only one bill that came to the floor under what’s called an “open rule,” meaning anyone can offer an amendment to the legislation ― and even then, it wasn’t truly an open rule, as there were pre-printing requirements and a prohibition on amendments striking the last word.
And all the while, Ryan has claimed with a straight face that the process in Congress has been “phenomenal.” (He actually said that the same day the House voted on a 2,232-page omnibus bill that was released about 15 hours earlier.)
In many ways, that should be how Ryan is remembered: Confidently claiming that what he’s doing, or the things Republicans have accomplished, are major feats, that he’s a serious policy thinker even when his actions are nakedly political, and that he’s being honest and forthright when he’s being anything but.