Pundits reacting to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's surprise retirement announcement seem to agree on one thing — the outgoing congressional leader has left behind a legacy of appeasement toward a man who once seemed to represent everything he deplored about the Republican Party, President Donald Trump.
One anecdote perhaps best sums up the irony of Ryan's position, and it came from a Politico report in December that revealed Ryan had been planning to denounce Trump's bigoted politics on Election Night 2016 after Hillary Clinton's expected victory:
As disappointed as he was about Clinton’s apparent victory, the speaker saw a silver lining: He would seize the occasion of Trump’s defeat—beginning that night—to speak about a return to an inclusive, aspirational, Jack Kemp-inspired “happy warrior” conservatism, and a rejection of Trumpism.
That anecdote came up again when Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic offered his preliminary postmortem of Ryan's career.
Instead, when Trump won, Ryan folded the speech back into his jacket pocket—where it has receded deeper ever since . . .
But after Trump took office, Ryan blinked at confronting the president’s appeals to white racial resentments. Pressed for reaction to comments like Trump’s reported description of African nations as “shithole” countries, Ryan managed to mumble the bare minimum of plausible criticism: “The first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful.” For most people genuinely distressed by Trump’s remarks, “unfortunate” and “unhelpful” were probably not the first words that came to mind; “racist” and “xenophobic” were.
Even more consequential was Ryan’s refusal to challenge Trump on behalf of the young undocumented immigrants included in former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Though the speaker repeatedly promised the “Dreamers” that Congress would protect them, he has allowed the legislation that would have preserved their legal status to wither, after Trump and House Republican hardliners insisted on linking it to poison-pill provisions that would slash legal immigration.
Larry Sabato, the political scientist who founded the Center for Politics, had a similar observation about Ryan's legacy when he spoke with Salon on Wednesday.
Ryan was once seen as the cutting edge of the new, younger, energetic conservative wing of the Republican Party. And I'm sure he's very proud of that tax bill. That will be what he cites today and forever. And of course, with a certain segment of America, that will resonate — that is the wealthier segment, the corporate segment, the people who will be employing Ryan at lavish salaries. But my feeling is that Ryan, who was once respected for being principled, has in fact turned into one of Donald Trump's prime enablers. And that's how he will be remembered.
Even if one sets aside Ryan's willingness to toss aside his own principles by working with a demagogue, the House speaker has also been derided for revealing himself to be inept by not even selling out in the name of some kind of substantive legacy. After all, unlike his predecessor Nancy Pelosi, Ryan didn't manage to work with a president from his own party to pass (or repeal) a number of landmark bills. Instead his success was limited to a tax reform law that many expect will significantly worsen the budget deficit that Ryan has long vowed to rein in.
As Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post pointed out:
Ryan did not have to wait for the November election to confirm what Trump has done to the speaker’s own reputation for intellectual depth and rectitude. He has been a hapless passenger in the sidecar of this chaotic presidency, not the driver of big policy ideas he once imagined himself to be.
Most of the Affordable Care Act remains intact, making hollow all his promises to repeal and replace it. Ryan’s most ambitious goal, to rein in entitlement spending, is not to be. Instead, part of his legacy will be a federal deficit projected by the Congressional Budget Office to top $1 trillion a year by 2020.
Ryan has also distinguished himself by his willingness to carry Trump's water even as scandal after scandal has beset the president and tanked the Republican Party's moral credibility in the process. Matthew Yglesias of Vox summed it up well at the end of his retrospective on Ryan's political career.
Ryan has, of course, also abdicated Congress’s constitutional responsibilities in an unprecedented way. Under his leadership, the House of Representatives is a land of “see no evil” when it comes to Donald Trump’s financial conflicts of interests or the dozens of various corruption scandals swirling around Scott Pruitt and other members of his Cabinet. When it comes to Robert Mueller’s investigation, they have actively worked to thwart it.
This is sometimes described as cowardice on Ryan’s part, but I think it was actually all rather daring. To throw in so wholeheartedly with an unpopular and corrupt president in order to maximize your odds of enacting an unpopular legislative agenda is brave, not cowardly. Cowardice only entered into it lately, when, having led his caucus most of the way off the plank, Ryan chose to quit rather than jump with them.
A similar observation could heard from Politico's Tim Alberta.
This is a political obituary of Ryan’s own writing. His silence in the face of Trump’s indignities—and his observance of “exquisite presidential leadership,” a line that will live in infamy—would be less remarkable had he not first established himself as one of Congress’s good guys, someone whose sense of principle and decency informed his objections to Trump’s candidacy in the first place. Indeed, the speaker’s habit of turning a blind eye to the president’s behavior is relevant and revelatory because it was not always so. There was hardly a tougher Trump critic during the 2016 campaign than Ryan, who felt duty-bound to combat the candidate’s dark rhetoric and the party’s nativist drift. Yet there has hardly been anyone softer on Trump since Election Day than Ryan, who felt duty-bound to deliver on the policy promises made to voters—and decided that doing so meant ignoring the ad hominem savaging of private citizens, the hush-money paid to porn stars, the attacks on private companies, the attempts to delegitimize institutions and the innumerable other acts for which Barack Obama would have been impaled by the right.
Ironically, and perhaps in a moment of poetic justice, the media outlet most closely associated with both Trumpism and Trump himself refused to give Ryan any credit for his willingness to go along with the president's agenda. Instead a pair of articles published after Ryan's announcement denounced the man as an enemy of the far right's goals.
Take these observations by John Binder:
As House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will retire from public office after his last term in the House, the leader of the globalist wing of the Republican Party is set to leave behind a legacy that ignored America’s working and middle class, while serving up an agenda favored by billionaires Charles and David Koch.
This year — days after Ryan successfully prioritized tax cuts ahead of President Trump’s popular immigration reduction agenda — the Koch brothers donated about half a million to Ryan’s campaign committee.
Binder used another article to describe Ryan's ideology as "pro-immigration, wage-crushing, big business-first," one that allowed American workers to be "left behind by multinational free trade and mass immigration."