Friday, April 20, 2018

Paul Ryan, the short-distance runner

IT HAD BEEN going so well, or, at least as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The Washington Post reported recently how, days earlier, political advisers to Rep. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives “announced he had already raised $54 million over the last 15 months, $40 million of which was directed to ... GOP campaigns through the National Republican Congressional Committee.”

The speaker’s reputation as a top-tier fundraiser was soaring, even if his cred as herder of fractious cats — leader of the Republican caucus — was under fire and his ability to navigate the turbulence of the Trump White House was always in question.

But then he went and spoiled it all by saying something shocking like “I’m outta here.”

Ryan, who replaced John Boehner in 2015, announced April 11 that he would not seek re-election to either his leadership role or his congressional seat. His reasoning is as understandable as it is commonplace in today’s Congress: Ryan, the father of three children, said he wants to spend more time with the family, a rationale for retirement lately invoked by everyone from Orrin Hatch to, well, whoever drops out next.

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“This was really about two things,” Ryan added. “I accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids are not getting any younger. And if I stay, my kids are only going to know me as a weekend dad and that is something I cannot do. That is really it right there.”

Since then, Ryan has been circling the wagons in his own camp, doing what he can, maybe whatever he can, to husband his powers as a short-timer that everyone knows is a short-timer.

And the House itself is still in a wait-and-see mode. When Ryan’s bombshell dropped, House members went into hair-on-fire mode contemplating a successor. Today? Not quite so much. Last week’s slam-dunks to succeed Ryan may not be such a sure thing after all. In short: it’s business as usual in Washington.

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WITH RYAN set to exit the scene, we can start the protracted farewell to one of the more reliable (and reliably ham-fisted) shapeshifters in modern Washington politics. Ryan has been an acolyte of Jack Kemp, the late New York Republican whose political equipoise — balancing centrist social policy, “big-tent” party aspirations, and conservative economic principles — would be mighty damn refreshing on Capitol Hill today.

But Ryan the student fell a long way from Kemp the teacher. Since he assumed the speakership in October 2015, Ryan has practiced a sometimes clumsy situational politics, hitting just the right optic tone in moments of social crisis — the NFL protests, Charlottesville — but failing to follow through when it otherwise counted. Like in photo-ops with, and political support of, a president whose naked bigotry and dogwhistles to white supremacy have gone a long way to polarizing this nation.

The pending exit of the speaker, amid the woofers and tweeters loose in the nation’s capital, endangers the Republican House majority in some important ways. First, it compromises, at least in the short term, the fundraising that Ryan did superbly well. His ability to grow money for the GOP was the result of relationships cultivated over time, relationships that won’t be easily or immediately transferable to his successor.

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Second, Ryan’s walkaway is an optical disaster for the GOP, sending the signal that the despair disease infecting numerous Republicans earlier in the year has now been contracted by the Speaker of the House. The incumbency factor Republicans have employed to great effect in solidifying GOP objectives, identity and majorities in both houses of Congress has been nullified, thanks to this wave of Republican resignations — of which Ryan’s is among the latest.

It keeps getting worse: The day after Ryan announced, Florida Rep. Dennis Ross said he wouldn’t seek re-election either. On April 17, moderate Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, already planning to retire at ear’s end, announced plans to hang ‘em up “in the coming weeks,” presumably by the end of April.

John Bresnahan of Politico observed in an April 12 podcast: “The message, the image it gives — ‘the Speaker is leaving, why should anybody vote Republican?’ The Democrats are already spinning this. ... How can he lead them if he’s leaving? ... I think Ryan has a big problem.”

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FOR HIS part, Ryan is in a mindset to soldier on. “I want be clear here,” he told reporters on April 11. “I’m not done yet. I’m going to run through the tape.”

Maybe. Ryan’s professionally reflexive desire to Finish The Job may be — will be — complicated by a desire among some in the GOP House majority to show Ryan the door sooner rather than later, as a strong signal of continuity to the base, an announcement of an intent to start fresh with a new speaker before the predictable headwinds of November. The thinking: Better to deal with this now and all at once than to endure the longish goodbye of Speaker Paul Ryan for another eight months.

Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei said as much to The Post, when he called for advancing the timetable for the leadership elections. “No disrespect to Paul,” he said, “but quite frankly, you want somebody who’s got skin in the game for after the election.”

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Rep. Peter T. King begs to differ. The reliably combative New York Republican wants to let Ryan ride it out. “Depending on how the elections come out, we can see what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and that can determine who should be the speaker,” King said to The Post. “There will be some maneuvering behind the scenes, but we don’t need a public campaign right now.”

But the operative phrase in that whole passage is “[d]epending on how the elections come out.” It’s conditional by definition, an endorsement of a roll of the dice that everything’s gonna come out all right in the end, maybe. A lot depends on the willingness of the Republican caucus to get behind that idea.

It’s not as if there aren’t people already waiting in the wings. Ryan’s announcement had barely hit the interwebs before the names of possible successors emerged.

On the short list: California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who bid for the speakership in 2015, and who is now championed by Ryan himself; and Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip whose survival of and triumph over gunshot wounds suffered in a 2015 incident in Washington, make for a compelling personal comeback narrative that could be emotionally galvanizing for a House majority on the ropes, if not on the rocks.

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MCCARTHY IS thought to have the early edge. The Post reported that “McCarthy has ... improved his standing with the conservative bloc, thanks in part to Trump and to smaller gestures — such as his current effort to push though a package of spending cuts in tandem with the White House.

“ ‘After his last run and coming up a bit short, Kevin could have kind of taken his ball and gone home and [said] ‘a pox upon you all,’ ” said Michigan GOP Rep. Bill Huizenga. “He did the opposite. He leaned into it. He continued to build relationships, continued to prove himself, and I think he did it the right way. You earn respect from people, I think, by doing that.”

McCarthy has Scalise’s respect. Shortly after Ryan’s announcement, Scalise said he wouldn’t seek the speaker’s post if McCarthy wanted it, effectively bowing out before the contest even started.

“Whip Scalise’s focus remains on moving our conservative agenda forward and maintaining our Republican majority,” Scalise spokesman Chris Bond told Politico. “When a Speaker’s race is called, he’ll be supporting Leader McCarthy.”

Is Scalise being obligatorily magnanimous or quietly strategic? Let’s happily and fairly concede him the instincts of a gentleman and a party loyalist. Let’s also not forget, we’re talking about politics in general, American politics in particular, and that freaky variable called human psychology. Sometimes you get what you didn't ask for.

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The Washington Post reported on April 18 that Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan has emerged as a possible challenger, one from the House GOP’s deep-right wing. “We’re not going to just rearrange the deck chairs around this place and keep doing the same stuff with different people,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, to The Post. Jordan is a co-founder of the caucus.

“I have shattered every fundraising record any speaker has ever set,” Ryan said recently. “It makes no sense to take the biggest fundraiser off the field, and I think almost all of our members see it that way.”

But that’s not necessarily so. Ryan didn’t take himself off the field as a fundraiser. He doesn’t have to be Speaker of the House to be a fundraiser. He may well be a better fundraiser for the GOP if he’s not Speaker of the House. Liberated from the officially partisan entanglements of his current office, Ryan would certainly have more time and energy to devote to raising money than he does now. And he could do to the exclusion of just everything else.

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AND THEN there’s the Trump card: an ex-Speaker Ryan will be able to, uh, speak his truth to power as a private citizen, articulating the differences great and small between himself and the mad wannabe-king in the Oval Office. Those differences aren’t as vast and deep as one might think.

Ryan made a big show of pushing back against Trump early in the administration’s history — and before. In June 2016, reacting to then-candidate Trump’s denunciation of federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a Mexican American, Ryan called it “textbook racism.” Which hasn’t stopped Ryan from having Trump’s back on other social matters including the NFL players’ protests.

Ryan offered a full-throated condemnation of white supremacy in the wake of the violence n Charlottesville, Va., last August. “White supremacy is repulsive,” he said. “This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.” But before then and leading up to right now, Ryan has been a deft apologist for divisive forces in the national life, managing to straddle positions on various radioactive issues, all the while picking his spots for sounding off against The Donald.

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Jamil Smith wrote last week in Rolling Stone: “Ryan had a real chance to further and improve upon his mentor Kemp’s vision for an inclusive GOP, more in terms of policy than pure physical representation. He chose to do the opposite. He said Trump’s brand of politics had ‘no place in our party,’ then proceeded to endorse and carry out his agenda. He acknowledged Trump’s racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, then he stood for that photo next to the president. Thumbs up.

“Ryan didn’t just give into Trump,” Smith noted. “His policy agenda has made him even more dangerous. So rather than painting Ryan as a Kempian conservative born out of his time and overwhelmed by the swell of white tribalism, we should recognize him as part of that very same problem that Trump represents.”

Ryan invoked the metaphor of the track athlete in expressing his intent to stay put. But this short-distance runner might have used another such sports analogy: that of the relay runner, obligated to hand off the baton to the next in line. The next eight months will tell us a lot: whether Ryan finishes the race in the first place, who he hands that baton to if he doesn’t ... and who’s left to suit up in a Republican House whose majority gets more and more precarious with literally every passing day.

Image credits: Ryan: Still from Reuters video. Ryan with Jack Kemp, 1998: The Washington Post. King: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times. McCarthy: via Bloomberg. Trump: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.

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