Paul Ryan

Alan Zendell, April 11, 2018

He said he didn’t want to run for Vice President and he said he didn’t want to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 2012 he’d been in the House for fourteen years, a staunch Conservative much like Jeff Flake, the heir apparent to Barry Goldwater who’d entered the chamber four years after him. Also like Jeff Flake, he was respected by the opposition and viewed as a decent, hard-working honest broker.

That made Paul Ryan a logical choice as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. He was scandal free and generally liked by the electorate, even those who disagreed with his political views. Good soldier that he is, he allowed himself to be drafted, but Ryan and Romney were overwhelmed by the Obama wave of populism from the left.

In October of 2015, John Boehner resigned as House Speaker, and Ryan immediately announced that he would not seek the speakership, instead intending to nominate Kevin McCarthy for the position. But McCarthy was too liberal for the right wing of the Republican party, and once again Ryan was seen as the consensus Republican, and he reluctantly allowed himself to be drafted for a position he didn’t really want.

I never feel sympathy for ambitious politicians, any more the than I do for overpaid athletes who make bad investments and wind up broke after they can’t play any more. The one exception to that might be Paul Ryan. Imagine his horror when he saw his party being overrun by Donald Trump. The two-and-a-half years he has served as Speaker can only have been a nightmare for him.

Of course, there’s another point of view. Ryan was one of dozens of influential Republicans who stood by and let it happen. Trump was a master at dividing and conquering, someone who had no scruples when it came to winning. One by one he wiped out his opponents in 2015 and 2016, including promising candidates like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the only way to have stopped the Trump tsunami would have been for those other Republicans to unite behind the one most likely to beat him.

Ryan could have played a significant role in that movement, but like all the others except Kasich, who held out till the end, he was unwilling to join the fray. Paul Ryan isn’t a street fighter. Like his politics or not, he’s a nice guy who doesn’t have the stomach to behave the way Trump does. After Trump was elected, I and others sometimes described him as weak when he could have stood up to Trump and chose not to, but it’s not that simple. Deciding when to fall on your sword is a tough call, and until we have to make that choice ourselves we should be hesitant to criticize.

On the other hand, when you’re fighting sewer rats you have to be willing to get down there with them, and clearly Paul Ryan has no taste for raw sewage. He’s a family man who has never been able to incorporate that into his value system.

He may have had additional reasons for quitting, but when he said he was resigning to get back to his family and he wanted his kids to know him as more than a weekend dad I believed him. When he said he accomplished what he set out to do, I believed that too. The 2017 Republican tax law was, more than anything else, the embodiment of Ryan’s conservative philosophy. It was something he’d fought for since he entered the Congress. It was Ryan’s victory far more than it was Trump’s.

While I wish he had spoken out against the president’s more outrageous behavior, in not doing so Ryan was simply following the pattern set by the rest of his party, notwithstanding that he was supposed to be one of their leaders. But now, he’s joined the ranks of those who’ve announced they won’t seek re-election, an act which has loosened the tongues of several Republicans who wouldn’t otherwise have spoken up.

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse have never hesitated to criticize the president, but they’re not up for re-election this year. Others who are, like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, used their decisions to leave the Congress like get-out-of-jail-free cards, once they had nothing to fear from Trump’s base.

I’d love to ask Paul Ryan if he plans to join his freed colleagues now that he’s out of the line of fire, or if he plans to continue to echo Mitch McConnell, his mealy-mouthed counterpart in the Senate. If he really wants his sons to see him as the moral leader he claims to be, what better way than to call out the president’s disgusting behavior? What better way than to call a spade a spade whenever Donald Trump attacks our basic institutions or demonstrates that he’s unfit for his office?

Please do it, Paul. Show all of us who thought you had class and integrity that you really do.

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