Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) cast himself as a reluctant speaker of the House when he succeeded Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) by consensus in 2015. His main challenge at the time was to hold together the Republicans’ fractured tea party and mainstream wings. No one saw future President Donald Trump coming.
With his announcement last week that he would not seek reelection this fall, giving up his role as the top Republican in Congress, Ryan has become the most prominent GOP lawmaker heading for the exits before a possible midterm shellacking by the Democrats.
Conventional wisdom holds that a little shellac is to be expected in an off-year election. But with an unpredictable and unpopular president (except with his base), Republicans — who have done their best to adjust to shifting White House priorities, erratic Twitter comments, trade protectionism and a retreat from international commitments — are finding themselves in a very difficult place as they prepare for November elections. Indeed, just at a time when party discipline and stability are understood to be necessary, the announced departure of the Republican Party’s most powerful member of Congress simply elevates the coming electoral challenge.
Ryan, a small-government evangelist who preaches cutting taxes for the rich and balancing the budget by slicing the social safety net for the poor, has not seen his larger policy goals achieved. Instead, he helped lead the passage of a massive tax cut for the wealthy which will add more than $1 trillion to the debt by 2020. At 48, he may have a second act in politics. But for now, exploding the debt appears to be his principle legislative legacy.
Perhaps because everyone recognized the enormous intra-party challenges he faced, as well as the continuing tempests he has had to navigate with the White House, Ryan has been a popular figure. As a result, before his announcement last week no sane Republican would have mounted a primary challenge against him. That helps to explain why an unapologetic anti-Semite named Paul Nehlen is now the leading Republican candidate in Ryan’s district. Nehlen has the distinction of being banned from Twitter for anti-Semitic tweets.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America has called on the Republican Party to renounce Nehlen. Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s director, expressed confidence that Wisconsin Republicans will pick another candidate, one who “upholds the GOP’s best values and traditions.” They almost certainly will.
Our concern, however, lies in the challenge to the Republican Party resulting from Ryan’s departure. Notwithstanding his heavy-handed tactics regarding the budget and other positions he took with which we might disagree, Speaker Ryan has been even-tempered, rational, coherent, and willing to engage on issues of concern and of interest to him and his party. With Ryan’s departure, someone else must step into the breach to be the Republican Party’s moral governing voice. Because, at least as we see it, that leadership isn’t coming from the White House.