The Tragedy of Paul Ryan

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Paul Ryan came to Congress as a Jack Kemp conservative and will depart as a Donald Trump Republican.

It’s more complicated than that, certainly. History requires nuance and texture. But legacies are reductive by nature. The House speaker announced his retirement Wednesday, closing a messy and mesmerizing chapter in the history of the Republican Party. And for the affable Wisconsin kid who moved to Washington a quarter-century ago, eager to make his mark on fiscal policy, the harsh reality is that he might be remembered more for accommodating the impulses of the 45th president than for crafting a generational overhaul of the tax code.

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’ 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.

This was “Paul’s deal with the devil,” a phrase used by several of the speaker’s confidants in the days following Trump’s shocking triumph. Reince Priebus, his old friend and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, had told Ryan on Election Day that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, and Ryan was prepared to give a speech soon afterward divorcing himself—and the party—from Trump once and for all. Instead, the speaker found himself staring down a Faustian bargain. Republicans had seized total control of Washington. And he might, over the next two years, have a chance to pursue the legislation of his dreams: repealing Obamacare, rewriting the tax code, reforming entitlement programs and rebuilding the military. But it would be possible only if he partnered with the very man whose offenses were so manifest that Ryan disinvited him from his own Wisconsin congressional district a month before the election.

Their alliance turned out to be stronger than anyone in either camp could have anticipated. Ryan carefully avoided criticizing the president while offering frequent elementary tutoring sessions on policy and process behind closed doors, grumbling only to a handful of close friends about the task; Trump reciprocated the speaker’s restraint and spared him of the sort of public shaming doled out to other Republicans, including Senate leader Mitch McConnell. By this metric—and considering the two major triumphs of his tenure, tax reform and boosted military funding—some allies will argue that Ryan’s shotgun marriage with Trump, and his speakership on the whole, was a success. “Paul will go down in history as having achieved more in a shorter period of time than any speaker of the House,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the speaker’s longtime friend, told me.

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