The news on Wednesday that House Speaker Paul Ryan won’t run for another term wasn’t shocking — it has been rumored for months. It’s also, weirdly, not shocking that Ryan is voluntarily giving up one of the most powerful jobs in politics. That kind of thing should be surprising. But he had several reasons for wanting out of the speakership in the era of President Trump and the House Freedom Caucus that make the decision seem almost expected.
1. Being the speaker of this Republican House was a tough job even pre-Trump
The conservatives in the House, particularly the Freedom Caucus, make being speaker very difficult. They oppose almost every budget and spending bill, forcing the speaker to make compromises with Democrats. Their conservatism creates tension with more moderate House Republicans, so party leaders like Ryan are constantly struggling to reconcile visions of Republican policy that may be irreconcilable.
Ohio Rep. John Boehner quit as House speaker less than three years ago. Boehner was under fire from the Freedom Caucus, which was threatening to depose him if he didn’t step down, because its members felt that he was insufficiently conservative. Freedom Caucus members were not trying to dump Ryan, but they were not particularly happy with him either, even as he made great efforts to placate them.
2. Trump has made wrangling the House even harder
Remember when Congress passed a spending bill last month? Ryan and the Trump White House worked closely together in putting that together, but then the president, at the last minute, started complaining about it and threatened to veto it. I bet Ryan remembers. There is a separate Trump factor that I will get to in a bit. But Trump’s bombastic, unpredictable political and governing style has emboldened the most conservative and anti-establishment members of the House.
The job of speaker is one of trying to instill order — to get people in line. Even pre-Trump, it was compared to “herding cats.” I think Ryan would have enjoyed being speaker more if a traditional Republican like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were president, because either of them would have pushed the rest of the party toward embracing norms of governing. But I doubt the more sober-minded Ryan has enjoyed, for example, how California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes has run the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation. Running the House is more difficult if a lot of members are behaving like mini-Trumps.
3. Ryan is not a natural Trump ally
After it became clear that Trump would be the GOP nominee in 2016, Ryan at first would not endorse him. Eventually he did, but Ryan again basically abandoned Trump in October 2016, after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. The two men were not personally close then. It’s not clear that they are now either.
Institutionally, Ryan has supported Trump. There are enough controversies in the Trump administration that the House could hold investigative and oversight hearings 24 hours a day. It hasn’t, in part because Ryan has basically decided that the House will ally itself with a president from his party. But Ryan’s job requires him to consistently either defend or downplay Trump’s behavior. I doubt he loves that.
4. Ryan’s policy goals are either accomplished or stalled
Ryan may have concluded that he got all he could.
With Trump in the White House, Ryan was able to overhaul U.S. tax policy, as he has long wanted to do. But the tax bill barely passed in the Senate. Looking at the struggles of the tax bill and the attempted Obamacare repeal, Ryan may have thought that his other major goals, comprehensive overhauls of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, had almost no chance of being adopted — even if Republicans remained in control of Congress through the remainder of Trump’s term.
Ryan’s proposals would likely meet near universal opposition from Democrats. And I doubt that Trump would have strongly embraced them. Moreover, it’s likely that GOP majorities, particularly in the House, will shrink after the midterms, making it even less likely that the party would pass major bills.
5. Ryan had fairly high odds of not being speaker after November anyway
Let’s not ignore the obvious: Ryan may just be announcing a decision that had already, in effect, been made for him by existing political realities. Democrats appear to have a good chance of winning the House in November. If that happened, Ryan would have two unappealing options: (i) lead the GOP opposition in the House, which is more of a political role than a policy role and one he probably wouldn’t enjoy personally, or (ii) leave party leadership and go from speaker to rank-and-file House member. Also, if Republicans lost seats and/or the majority, Ryan would have run the risk of being deposed as speaker or party leader by his GOP colleagues.
Instead, Ryan can move to the next phase of his life. Remember, he was a key figure in pushing through a tax cut that substantially reduced rates for corporations. I strongly suspect that some Wall Street bank or major company will be eager to hire him and pay Ryan way more than the $223,500 salary he gets as speaker.
Paul Ryan will be fine. And so will the Republican Party without him. When the party embraced Trump as its nominee, it essentially rejected Ryan-style politics and the figures that espoused it, such as Bush and Rubio. California’s Kevin McCarthy and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise — the No. 2 and No. 3 Republicans in the House, respectively, and the expected leading contenders to replace Ryan — are better fits for the Trump GOP. McCarthy in particular is better known for his close relationship with the president than his complicated plans to change Medicare.