On Paul Ryan’s Decision to Not Seek Re-election: Being Right

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced he would not be seeking re-election to Congress in his home state of Wisconsin. In his press conference, Speaker Ryan insisted that the move was neither necessitated by the GOP’s looming November primary nor his tumultuous relationship with the president, but rather by a genuine desire to spend more time with his family and none at all in Washington. To be sure, this is a typical obfuscation for leaving politics, but in Ryan’s case it has more credibility than most: he never actually wanted this job.  

 Three years ago, Ryan reluctantly accepted his party’s nomination for the speakership at the age of 45. From that moment until his retirement, Ryan was presiding over a fractured party. This fracture obviously became much worse with Trump’s nomination; and indeed Ryan’s position as the level-headed, unifying, Jack Kemp-esque conservative he was elected to be was called seriously into question. But given the political landscape during the time of Ryan’s speakership, his story is an overwhelmingly human one.  

When Trump announced his presidency campaign, and shortly after when he began discussing his proposed Muslim ban, Paul Ryan was one of his fiercest critics and one of his most salient.  Ryan was at that point a member of the Republican leadership willing to say, “This is not what our party, nor our country stands for.” Throughout the nomination process, he was very loudly no fan of Donald Trump. It seems that the most substantial criticism made of Ryan in the wake of his retirement is that he did not continue to be such a voice against the president. But to call this attitude Faustian is deeply unfair. The GOP, despite having control of Congress and the presidency, is in a state of immense institutional weakness, mainly at the hands of Donald Trump. Paul Ryan rightly objects to the president’s thoughts on immigration, economics and nationalism but saw some potential to work with him on agendas involving healthcare, taxes and de-regulation. This was not a deal with the devil; it was an attempt by a party leader to make something good of an obviously volatile situation. And in the end, it became too much for one man to manage. 

Beyond the specific agenda items in question here, there is a more fundamental question for any ambitious person to consider: when placed in a system with which you disagree, do you act as an individual to subvert it entirely, at the risk of making no change at all, or do you work to make what changes you can with what you’ve been given? It’s easy to say that the former seems more nobel, but as Speaker of the House, it is clear that Paul Ryan was pushed toward the latter. In order for anything at all to happen in politics, party cohesion is an implicit necessity and the primary goal of the speakership. Ryan understood this and decided to leverage it as best he could by attempting to cooperate with a man he found reprehensible (which, by the way, came with a healthy amount of condemnation for the president’s personal life and leadership style). Trump, of course, was no help in this.  

In the end, Ryan only really ended up with tax reform and reactionary scorn from the nationalist far right and alarmist far left. He was simply too even-handed for his time. At the moment, he seems to be one of the many people who sought to work with and steer the president, but got personally trampled by a moment of insanity in Washington. Now that his re-election is off the table and party stability seems a non-sequitur, Ryan has seven months to demonstrate that he is as committed to traditional conservative policy and decency as I believe he is. It is sad to see yet another voice of reason leave the majority in Washington, but it seems that we are not living with only a political right that will not tolerate Paul Ryan; we are living in a political culture that will not tolerate Paul Ryan.

Contact Ryan Zoellner at [email protected].