Is Paul Ryan toast? Donald Trump's campaign should make House speaker worry about his future

Abused by a toxic nominee and under attack by movement conservatives, the GOP's golden boy has run out of rope

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 17, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Paul Ryan   (Getty/Win McNamee)
Paul Ryan (Getty/Win McNamee)

With 22 days and counting until Election Day, on Sunday night the Associated Press' lede on its latest story about the election began like this:

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- A beleaguered Donald Trump sought to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. presidential election on Saturday, pressing unsubstantiated claims the contest is rigged against him, vowing anew to jail Hillary Clinton if he is elected and throwing in a baseless insinuation his rival was on drugs in the last debate.

It's not surprising that Trump is melting down even more dramatically than usual. You know how he loves to look at poll numbers and they just aren't looking very good for him at the moment. But things aren't looking any better for the GOP in general. It's foolish to predict anything about this election but if it follows past elections, it's possible that in addition to losing the presidential race the Republicans will also lose the Senate. They gerrymandered their House majority so efficiently that it's almost impossible for them to lose their majority (speaking of rigged elections) but the way they're going, it's likely they will lose more seats than they had anticipated.

So one of the big questions is what happens to the House if the GOP hangs on to a slim majority that's even more conservative than it was in 2016. After all, those are the safest seats. And this raises the question: Will Paul Ryan remain speaker?

If you ask any member of the Beltway establishment, including most representatives of the media, Paul Ryan is the leader of the Republican Party of their dreams. He's young, telegenic and conservative in that familiar sense that he wants to cut government to the bone but "for our own good." They look at him as the savior of the political system — the man who can bring everyone together like former president Ronald Reagan so we'll all go back to pretending that normal people are all Republicans.

Unfortunately, that Paul Ryan doesn't exist. The man whom Esquire's Charlie Pierce has described as the "zombie-eyed granny starver" and The New York Times' Paul Krugman has called a "con-man" isn't actually a very good policy wonk, which is what supposedly set him apart from all the yahoos. As Ian Millhiser of Think Progress memorably put it in this masterful dissection of Ryan's many flaws:

Paul Ryan’s ambition . . .  is matched only by his innumeracy. He builds cathedrals to dyscalculia, and fills them with a worshipful press corps. But his is a false faith, resting upon ideas that do not withstand scrutiny.

Until recently most of us who have been following him thought that while he was wildly overrated as a thinker, he was a pretty good politician. How else could he have persuaded so many people that his adolescent Ayn Randism was serious and then switch to "social justice Catholic" without missing a beat?

It has never been in the cards that most Democrats would fall for his flimflam, but at least Ryan seemed to be a figure who could bridge the growing divide in the GOP — as literally the only House Republican acceptable to all factions as speaker.

That was wrong, too. Just look at how terribly Ryan has dealt with the "Trump problem," trying to have it both ways and ending up looking like a weasel who doesn't know his own mind. Caught between trying to defend Trump as the nominee in order to keep the base from chasing him with pitchforks and being bashed by Trump whenever Ryan displeases him, the speaker has become a convenient punching bag.

In the process, Ryan exacerbated the existing problems he had with the conservative movement stalwarts, which is something the Beltway establishment refuses to see. This petition has been up for months at Richard Viguerie's Conservative HQ:

The contentious vote for Speaker of the House reflected the frustration of voters nationwide, who did not have confidence that the House Republican Leadership would have the courage to carry out the voters’ mandate. A poll conducted by Pat Caddell confirmed a growing rift between voters and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. And out of that frustration and rift the Trump for President movement came into being. We the grassroots constitutional conservative base of the Republican Party demand that you do the job we voted you into office to do.

These conservatives hold Ryan's alleged weakness responsible for the Trump phenomenon. Now that Trump is faltering, some of his supporters are holding Ryan responsible for that as well. (Jerry Falwell Jr. has even suggested that Ryan planted the "Access Hollywood" tape.) It's looking more and more like Ryan will be a fall guy if Trump loses.

So where does that leave the speakership? Congressional expert Stan Collander has written that Ryan may very well be out:

The reduced majority will make the House Freedom Caucus — which for some time has been threatening to challenge Ryan — a larger slice of what will now be a smaller GOP caucus pie. To get reelected, Ryan might need virtually the entire HFC to vote for him and the steep price of its support is likely to be more than he is willing to pay.

If Ryan's out, in an even more conservative House majority the person who may succeed him is Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan of Ohio, a firebrand who makes Ted Cruz look like a bipartisan squish. As Politico reported:

Jordan and his followers haven’t given Ryan much breathing room. Among other things, they blocked him from passing a budget, the speaker’s top priority this year, because it didn’t cut spending enough; and tanked leadership’s response to the Orlando massacre because it wasn’t hawkish enough on terrorism.

Jordan has been leading the charge to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and loves to use congressional power to investigate his political enemies. He even angrily released his own Benghazi report when he thought the committee led by Rep. Trey Gowdy had gone too easy on Hillary Clinton.

Unless a miracle happens and the Democrats take the House, with or without Paul Ryan it's very likely that we will see more of the same congressional obstruction and destruction of the last eight years, with the added thrill of ongoing investigations of the new administration. One of the top 2020 presidential hopefuls, Sen. Tom Cotton, is already onboard.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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