Paul Ryan essentially entered the nation’s life on a humid Virginia Saturday in 2012, walking down the gangway of the old battleship Wisconsin as Republican candidate Mitt Romney announced his surprise selection as the vice presidential running mate.
The choice of the young, wonky Wisconsin representative was an uncharacteristically bold move by Romney. The presence of the powerful House Budget Committee chairman instantly thrust the role and size of federal government into the lackluster campaign, while energizing the conservative GOP base that had woefully watched weeks of unanswered Democratic attacks on the underfunded Romney.
The political partnership with Ryan, the main architect of the GOP’s plans for tax and spending cuts and crucial entitlement reforms, added instant heft and gravitas to the campaign. And the presence of the 42-year-old Roman Catholic made an attractive contrast to Democratic leaders such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, all in their seventies.
The announcement last week that Speaker Ryan would not seek an eleventh House term was another landmark event for the party of Lincoln; this one in the era of Donald Trump. Ryan’s departure come January will mark the official closing of the title transfer to President Trump of complete ownership of the Republican Party, for better or worse.
A lifelong Democratic donor, Trump is no ideologue prepared to stand in the breech or anywhere really over conservative principles. He’s a deal-making pragmatist, which is apparently what a sufficient number of voters in just the right places wanted in 2016. The recent budget deal, which Trump championed because it begins the immense rebuilding of U.S. military strength, proves that, with mounting annual deficits in excess of $800 billion.
Ryan gave family time as a main reason for leaving Washington. "If I am here for one more term, my kids will only have known me as a weekend dad," said Ryan, who lost his own father as a teenager. Unlike many such exit explanations, that rings true.
Speaker is a major fundraising job. In 2015, when Ryan reluctantly agreed to head the House caucus and attempt to herd his party’s undisciplined, feuding factions, he insisted on open weekends to be with family in their brick house in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.
Unlike most in Congress, Ryan has lived the original intended life of a member. He didn’t move to the District of Columbia and end up representing Capitol Hill back to his district. He lives in Wisconsin’s 1st and takes the message of its 715,000 residents to Washington every Monday. Which helps explain his 2016 reelection with 65 percent of the vote in a four-man race.
But hidden within his family talk is another cause, one that’s also helped prompt some four dozen Republican members to leave the Hill after this term: the unpredictable, impulsive Oval Office occupant.
It took Trump and Ryan some time to endorse each other in 2016. Because nothing is ever Trump’s fault, he blamed Ryan and GOP members for last year’s legislative failures, including the persistent inability to repeal Obamacare.
Those failures tanked Ryan’s job approval, which were only now recovering. “Paul Ryan is retiring,” said late-night host Jimmy Fallon. “He says that after 20 years in Congress, it's time to let someone else get nothing done.”
For his part, asked about Trump’s description of some African nations as outhouse countries, Ryan pronounced that “unfortunate” and “unhelpful.” But they did end up working together on tax cuts and the budget, albeit one that no doubt made Ryan wince fiscally.
On Ryan’s departure announcement, Trump tweeted, “We are with you Paul,” calling him “a truly good man.”
Ryan’s replacement, who if historical patterns hold, may well inherit the undesirable job of Minority Leader, will most likely be California’s Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Trump likes him, at least this week.
Ryan is young enough to soon face three college tuitions for Samuel, Charles and Elizabeth. He vows no future employment talks with anyone until leaving office in January. Lobbying could be lucrative, but seems an unlikely path since it would require more D.C. commuting. And House rules prohibit that work for him before 2020.
More likely he’d join corporate boards requiring much less travel. Plus paid speeches and perhaps a book on his reform ideas and rise from lowly aide to Rep. Jack Kemp to second in line to the presidency.
This would enable Ryan to be home most days when the kids return from school, when Wisconsin’s sacred deer season opens in October and when his Packers play at home. Unlike Washington life today, all three are predictable.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.