The news of Speaker Paul Ryan's impending retirement from Congress was not entirely a surprise. Rumors have been floating around for months that Mr. Ryan would step down after the midterm elections this fall. Neither was it surprising that many Republicans would celebrate Ryan's decision as a victory. For years now, many on the right have considered Ryan a “rino” for his pragmatic approach to Washington politics.
While Ryan's decision wasn't a surprise, it was a disappointment. For me, Ryan is one of the few Republicans in Washington that I can still look to with respect. That doesn't mean that I agree with everything that Ryan has said and done during his tenure. It does mean that I think he's a decent, honest human being and a good conservative who did what he thought was best for his country.
I became a fan of Ryan even before he was picked by Mitt Romney as his running mate in 2012. I heard Ryan's fiscal message as chairman of the House Budget Committee and thought that this was a man who knows his stuff. Ryan's reputation for knowledge about the details of government policy is well-deserved.
Ryan earned my respect with his detailed plans to balance the federal budget and save Medicare from its impending financial implosion. Ryan was the principal author of the “Path to Prosperity,” a Republican budget blueprint that unfortunately never became law. As chairman of the Budget Committee, Ryan was instrumental in the passage of the first real federal spending cuts since the Eisenhower era when Republicans cut spending in real dollars for two consecutive years in 2011 and 2012.
Ironically, Ryan's dedication to cutting spending made him a target of members of both parties. Ryan was attacked from the left in an ad that showed him pushing granny off a cliff and from the right for supporting cuts to the military budget. Many of the attacks from both sides were inaccurate and unfair, but such is politics. The core truth that many have yet to embrace is that reining in the budget deficit will require cuts to the favorite programs of both sides, not just the other guys.
Ryan's elevation to Speaker of the House in 2015 is a testimony to esteem in which his colleagues hold him. He didn't seek the position, but was more or less drafted by fellow Republicans as the only candidate that could bridge the divided between the Freedom Caucus and party moderates.
Donald Trump's nomination and subsequent election put Ryan in a difficult spot. Ryan was obviously not an ecstatic passenger on the Trump Train, but he was able to work with the president to pass the historic tax reform bill.
There are likely many reasons for Ryan's sudden departure at the height of his political career. With a blue wave expected this November, it is unlikely that Mr. Ryan would be able to make progress on entitlement reform, the ultimate goal of his career. The odds are good that when Congress reconvenes in January 2019 that it would be Nancy Pelosi that holds the speaker's gavel, even if Ryan had not decided to retire. Going back to the budget committee after the triumph of tax reform would be a bitter pill.
It's also likely that Ryan's departure is exactly why he says. The speaker never pretended to like the Washington scene and it is no secret that he would prefer to be home with his family. As a fellow father about the same age as Ryan, I can sympathize with this.
The Republican Party will probably miss Ryan more than it yet realizes. A big unknown is who among the House Republican caucus would be able to “herd the cats” together long enough to pass controversial legislation. This is especially true if Republicans lose seats this November, as is expected.
Congressmen of either party who are able to reach across the aisle to forge a bipartisan compromise and actually get things done instead of preening for the cameras and denouncing anyone who disagrees with them are in short supply. It's easy to say “no” and hold out for the impossible. It is much more difficult to put together a bill that can actually become law. It's likely that the GOP will need more pragmatic negotiators in the mold of Ryan if it hopes to accomplish anything for the last two years of President Trump's term.
In this chaotic political landscape, we may not have seen the last of Paul Ryan. The federal deficit, his signature issue, is a growing crisis that few on either side want to talk about. I wouldn't rule out a future run for higher office for Ryan, if his country calls. In the meantime, I'll offer an Irish toast to the departing Speaker of the House:
I wish you health, I wish you well, and happiness galore.
I wish you luck for you and friends; what could I wish you more?
May your joys be as deep as the oceans, your troubles as light as its foam.
And may you find, sweet peace of mind, where ever you may roam.