I noted during the frustrations of the John Boehner years that the easiest thing in the world to do in a legislature is complain about your leaders negotiations and insist that if you had been in charge, you would have gotten a better deal. Passing big, consequential pieces of legislation is hard. Coalitions are difficult to keep together. Everyone who benefits from the status quo lines up against you, with institutional advantages and the power of inertia. Oh, and the clock is on their side, too.
Now Paul Ryan is announcing that he’s retiring — after saying “I ain’t going anywhere” in December — and the outlook for Republicans is grim, both in the 2018 midterms and beyond. Back then, our former colleague Tim Alberta reported, “Ryan has never loved the job; he oozes aggravation when discussing intraparty debates over ‘micro-tactics,’ and friends say he feels like he’s running a daycare center.” The House GOP was always fractious and divided at the best of times, and since January 2017, Ryan’s been trying to work with a Senate that requires 60 votes. By July, the House of Representatives had passed a slew of big bills, only to watch them slowly die in the Senate. He’s also trying to work with a president who flips from priority to priority (DACA! Guns! North Korea! Syria! Opioids! Infrastructure!) and a constantly-changing White House staff. It’s hard to generate any sustained momentum for key legislation.
At least some of this year’s mass GOP retirements stem from a sense that little can really get done in Trump’s Washington, so you might as well do something else more lucrative.
Ryan is like a perennial All-Star who never quite enjoyed the ideal circumstances to shine. He always seemed to attract a disproportionate amount of mockery and disdain for what he was actually trying to do. Those scoffing “good riddance” to Ryan now probably ought to look back at John Boehner and Dennis Hastert. Ryan’s younger, a better communicator, more telegenic and even more of a policy wonk than his predecessors and most of his potential successors.
The guy who liberals depicted throwing granny off the cliff . . . was also the kind of man goes into drug treatment centers, touches the scars from the “track marks” of heroin addicts, and prays with and for them. He was portrayed as some sort of heartless Ayn Rand acolyte when he emphasized how conservatives needed to find solutions for poverty. He was civil, well-informed, polite, and firm, the opposite of a table-pounding, demagogic extremist, and that probably just aggravated his critics on the left even more. As The New Republic put it in a 2015 headline, “Paul Ryan’s a Good Guy. So What?”
Well, a lot of people in politics aren’t “good guys,” and so we ought to salute those who are. When we act like all politicians are indistinguishable liars and crooks for a long enough time, the public starts to believe it, and becomes willing to simply vote for the most charming lying crook.