House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) Speaks to reporters Wednesday in the Capitol that he does not seek re-election. (Matt McClain / The Washington Post)
Two years ago, Parliament Speaker Paul D. Ryan was the indispensable Republican Party man who linked the party's unruly congressional committee to an agenda of tax cuts and shrinkage of the welfare state. Now Ryan retires to spend more time with his teenage children.
What happened? Ryan's spokesman began with strong support from ordinary Republicans, but this support eroded considerably as he tried to distance himself from President Trump. His departure underscores how much Robert Reich put it: "The Republican Party no longer stands for anything but Trump."
Ryan's relationship with the president was strained from the start. He expressed repeated, though carefully modulated, criticism of Trump during the campaign and eventually withdrew his support in the infamous "Access Hollywood" recording. Ryan was just one of many prominent Republicans who denied the presidential candidate of their party. But the base did not seem to care – the vast majority of Republican voters still supported Trump.
Ryan's tightrope continued after Trump entered the White House. Last August, he told a CNN forum that the president had "screwed up" his original response to the racist violence in Charlottesville. A few days later, a Trump tweet blamed "Mitch M & Paul R" for the "chaos" of the debt ceiling, as they failed to heed his advice on the Legislative Strategy. "Every morning," Ryan complained in a weird twist, "I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see what tweets I have to pretend I did not see them later."
Ryan rode the tiger long enough to gain a massive tax cut for companies. But after domestic politics faltered, a detrimental trade war loomed (although the speaker publicly called for the White House to resign), and Washington was involved in seemingly endless controversy over Trump's behavior, Ryan decided he had had enough.
The veteran journalist Chris Cillizza told Ryan that he had "drawn lines in the sand for the past two years – and then deleted them when Trump invariably passed." The futility of Ryan's resistance, Cillizza surmised, stems from the fact that "there is still danger. The danger of breaking open with Trump is very great," who "remains very, very popular with people who voted for him . "
Actually," very, very popular "is a little over the top. Republican identifiers and "Leaners" in a YouGov poll in November 2017 gave Trump an average rating of just 7.1 on a scale of 0 to 10, barely a rousing endorsement. But they were even less enthusiastic about other Republican leaders – including Ryan, whose average rating was very lukewarm. (In contrast, Democrats gave Barack Obama an average rating of 8.3 and Nancy Pelosi a 5.9.)
The Republicans, who remained faithful to Ryan despite his friction with Trump, were primarily those who expressed his discomfiture with the Conservative shared the cultural turn of the party. But they are a significant minority. Most Republicans support the American flag and the English language and are concerned about discriminating against whites and protecting our borders from illegal immigrants. Those people rated Trump much more favorably than Ryan, despite their support for the government's traditional Republican agenda.
The extent of Republican frustration with their own party building is underscored by answers to a question in the YouGov poll that asks, "If Donald Trump disagrees with Republicans in Congress, who do you think is more likely?" The Republicans chose Trump with a margin of 52 percent to 15 percent (the rest said "neither" nor "uncertain"). For the energetic half who voted in 2014 in the midterm elections, the margin was even more mixed. 65 percent chose Trump and only 10 percent expressed confidence in the party's congressmen. Obviously, Republican Republicans, when involved in intra-party disputes between Trump and the party's establishment, have clearly backed Trump.
Ryan's announcement of retirement has sparked pessimism regarding the Republicans' chances of retaining their house majority in the US 2018 interim elections. According to Mitch McConnell, the former Majority Advocate's adviser in the contest, "it now seems clear that the fight is to lead the Senate." The Senate map gives the Republicans a big edge, with only one incumbent running in a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. But McConnell is even more unpopular than Ryan. Republicans in this November 2017 poll gave him an average rating of just 3.9 on the 0-10 scale, while Democrats and "pure" independents put him at 2.9.
If Ryan's demise makes McConnell a figurehead for the Republican establishment, he may as well endanger the electoral fate of the party as Trump himself. The Democrats will accuse him of cooperating with the president on the abolition and tax cut of Obamacare while Republicans accuse him of "dislike and sometimes open hostility". For most Republicans, moderation in support of Trump is not a virtue.
Larry M. Bartels is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. His books include "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do not Produce Responsive Government" (with Christopher H. Achen) and "Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Golden Age", 2nd edition.