Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone. It’s soooooooooo good to be with you all again.
For us to debate today: How much of a lame duck is House Speaker Paul Ryan?
There have been a few news developments that sorta raise this question — White House budget director Mick Mulvaney reportedly talking to supposed-next-in-line House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy about replacing Ryan early, the discharge petition (which would force a vote on DACA) gaining steam in the House despite leadership’s opposition, etc.
So, let’s start with how much of a lame duck Ryan is. But I’m also kinda curious how and why that matters.
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): He’s a lame duck in the most obvious sense that he’s not running for another term, so he will be gone after December. Usually, the speaker of House leads, in part, through the perception that he or she has outsized power (he or she controls committee chairmanships, has access to donors you need, etc.), and I wonder if you lose power if everyone knows you are leaving soon.
I guess the only question is whether he was a lame duck already — before announcing his pending retirement — because of the perception that Democrats will win the House anyway.
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I’ve been tuned out of the House shenanigans for a bit, so I’m not as filled in on this discharge petition stuff that Micah referred to, but the basic gist is that Ryan was against bringing an immigration vote to head and told his caucus as much, but then a lot of them ignored him?
Sounds like a loss of power, though can we directly tie it to his lame duck-age? Isn’t the House Republican caucus just generally disobedient?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I think he’s a lame duck figuratively — but not literally. Paul Ryan is a person and not a bird.
But more seriously — he hasn’t been an especially effective speaker. He doesn’t really have that much of a hold of his caucus. And there’s no reason for Kevin McCarthy or other people who want to be speaker not to try to oust him early.
clare.malone: Propriety, I guess, is what the counterargument would be
micah: Is there an affirmative reason for them to oust him early? What’s the benefit?
perry: The context here is that conservatives and moderates joined together to kill a farm and food stamps bill that Ryan was pushing on Friday. That increased the buzz that Ryan has no power with his caucus. The conservatives were mad that he wasn’t moving forward on their immigration bill, which is along the lines of what Trump wants. The moderates didn’t like the food stamps cuts. Separately, the moderates are pushing to get a vote on a bill that would basically grant legal status to the “dreamers,” who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children, and trying to force it to the floor over the objections of Ryan.
clare.malone: I’m interested in someone explaining the logic of this Mulvaney quote to me:
“Wouldn’t it be great to force a Democrat running in a tight race to have to put up or shut up about voting for Nancy Pelosi eight weeks before an election? That’s a really, really good vote for us to force if we can figure out how to do it.”
natesilver: Yeah, that quote is obvious bullshit.
micah: I don’t think Mulvaney understands how the midterms are shaping up, no?
clare.malone: If the Republicans decide to force a leadership vote on their end, Democrats also get forced into a vote, right?
perry: If Ryan resigns now, there is a vote by the full House for who is speaker.
micah: Yeah, it’s one vote, right?
perry: Democrats would have to vote for either Pelosi or vote present.
It’s one vote of the whole chamber, yeah.
micah: But, Nate, explain why you think it’s BS.
natesilver: First of all, there are very few vulnerable Democrats running in the House. The GOP won almost all the competitive seats in 2014 and 2016.
Secondly, the Democrats have already voted on Pelosi as speaker, so it’s hard to see another vote having any marginal impact.
Thirdly, some Democrats in tough races (and again, there are almost none of them) might appreciate an opportunity to throw Pelosi under the bus when there’s essentially no consequence to doing so.
And fourthly, this is exactly the sort of self-serving excuse that one should be disdainful of. It’s a transparent excuse from McCarthy’s allies to do something they have lots of other reasons to do.
perry: To take Mulvaney’s side, if you think Ryan is suboptimal as leader because he is a lame duck and want to dump him, that’s a reasonable position. And if you are at a Weekly Standard event (that is where Mulvaney made his comments), it might be easier to say, “Let’s use the speaker vote to beat up on Pelosi,” than, “Ryan has no power and couldn’t manage the firing of a chaplain, let’s get him out already.”
clare.malone: Right, Nate, isn’t politics all about saying something that is actually a transparent excuse to get to actually DO something else? Or Congressional politics, at the very least.
natesilver: Of course it is, Clare, but it’s the job of reporters to call out that bullshit.
clare.malone: You wanted more context to the news story, correct?
Or you wanted reporters to thinly editorialize within the piece that this was BS?
perry: Let me also try defending Mulvaney’s view of the politics: Wouldn’t a vote in September on House speaker be a huge media story and basically require every Democratic candidate for the House — and to some extent the Senate — to give their views on Pelosi? Isn’t this a net good for Republicans? Isn’t any day/week that Pelosi’s unpopularity is in the news a good day for Republicans?
micah: That last point seems pretty persuasive to me.
perry: I’m not saying it’s going to win the GOP any seats. But the Republicans don’t have a lot to run on.
natesilver: I think it would be a half-day story.
slackbot: Micah used to taunt people leaving even a few minutes early with, “Half day?” as they walked out the door. He thought he was very funny. Many, many others disagreed.
micah: Haha — someone made that automated reply when anyone says “half day” apparently.
clare.malone: Can we leave slackbot in there?
natesilver: Please leave that in the chat.
perry: Republicans are already investing heavily in the anti-Pelosi strategy in ads and so on.
natesilver: Whereas … replacing the speaker of the House two months before an election would be a bigger story? What if the vote doesn’t go smoothly?
perry: Good point. Any process that relies on Freedom Caucus cooperation will not be smooth.
Imagine what they would ask McCarthy for! “Obamacare repeal votes every day if you are speaker.”
natesilver: Yeah, for me it’s like — if you can do it quietly, sure, go ahead and do it. But if it becomes a big news story, there’s more downside than upside risk for Republicans.
perry: The Ryan question, in part, gets at something broader: What would you do to save the majority if you were Trump/Mike Pence/McCarthy/Ryan? And is Ryan bad at running the House or is the GOP conference ungovernable? Maybe the second question has the more obvious answer: yes and yes.
micah: OK, yeah, so let’s take that one part at a time.
Step 1: Is Ryan’s continued occupation of the speakership hurting the GOP as it heads into the midterms?
Hurting electorally, that is.
clare.malone: Eh, is it?
micah: I’m asking you!
clare.malone: I’m not sure that it is.
micah: I do the asking around here!!!
clare.malone: OK, that’s my answer: I’m not sure that it is!
I’d call it neutral.
micah: Yeah, that’s my view too.
natesilver: Ryan isn’t a popular guy. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are really just as unpopular as Pelosi, depending on which polls you look at.
perry: Hard to know. It’s not helping. He says he is great at raising money. I think GOP donors would give to whoever was in that job, because they are focused on the majority.
micah: Ryan is unpopular in the way all Congressional leaders are unpopular.
natesilver: Also, the GOP agenda is quite unpopular. People forget that Trump’s approval ratings hit some of their lowest points in the midst of the health care debate, and then later in the midst of tax debate, when the GOP Congress was dominating the news.
micah: But again, that suggests this isn’t about Ryan.
Whoever occupies that job will represent 1. Congress, and 2. the GOP agenda.
Both of which, as you say, are unpopular.
natesilver: And Kevin McCarthy is not exactly a guy who screams, “Here’s a break from the status quo.”
micah: Very true.
clare.malone: He’s from exotic CALIFORNIA!!!!
OK, Step 2 …
Would a different speaker (McCarthy or someone else) or the process of getting a different speaker, in any way improve GOP’s 2018 fortunes?
natesilver: “In any way” is a pretty big qualifier.
micah: I’m trying to encourage outside-the-box thinking.
natesilver: I think there are probably some consequences to the GOP caucus being in disarray before the midterms. I’m not sure if getting rid of Ryan will lead to more or less disarray, however.
But I don’t think this is really an electoral politics story. It’s more a future-of-the-Republican-Party story.
clare.malone: Love those.
Ryan is publicly “with Trump,” but you can read between the lines and see that he also probably doesn’t like the guy. But he’s gone along with him. I’d be interested to see what a Freedom Caucus speaker would look like — i.e., a super-duper Trump buy-in person.
micah: I mean, isn’t McCarthy pretty super-duper Trumpy?
clare.malone: Sure. But he’s not a radical conservative.
That’s what I mean … like, of the stylistically radically conservative set.
natesilver: I don’t think McCarthy is particularly Trumpy.
perry: Ryan is, “Let Mueller finish.” McCarthy is basically, “Whatever Trump is for.” And a Freedom Caucus speaker would be, “Fire Rosenstein, we need a second special counsel, go Nunes!”
micah: That’s a good way to break it down.
perry: And I think that is what we are really debating ahead of 2018. Ryan wants to do conservative policy (reforming the food stamp program, for example). The moderates don’t, because conservative policy is dangerous politically if you are in a swing district. The Freedom Caucus wants to do conservative policy and anti-Mueller/Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stuff. McCarthy wants to please Trump and become speaker (those goals are related but not necessarily perfectly aligned with one another). He is not particularly policy-oriented, and I don’t mean that as a insult, because being in leadership in Congress is not really a policy role.
And as Nate hinted, these play into visions of the future too.
natesilver: I mean, McCarthy has voted with Trump a lot since he’s been in leadership. But I think he’s sort of a generic conservative Republican, frankly. He’s neither as ideologically-driven nor as wonky as Ryan, I don’t think. He’s just a partisan who votes the way most of the GOP caucus does.
micah: Doesn’t that describe Ryan too?
micah: I’m serious!
clare.malone: I know.
natesilver: Ryan has at least the patina of being an intellectual.
clare.malone: The Ryan-McCarthy swap out would be more of the same.
perry: Ryan really wants to do a bill reforming the food program because he believes in that policy. McCarthy, I don’t think, would really push that — unless he was told that was what other people wanted and it would guarantee him speaker votes.
micah: So if that’s true, then maybe getting McCarthy in would marginally help the GOP.
natesilver: Ryan has called out Trump on various occasions. Maybe not when it mattered and not in a meaningful way. But more than McCarthy has.
perry: That is true as well.
I think McCarthy, if you can believe it, might make the House slightly more Trump-aligned than it is now.
clare.malone: Do you think voters actually care about a new speaker pre-midterms?
clare.malone: That’s the original q …
I’m not sure they do!
Micah and I are on the “nothing really matters” bandwagon
micah: Team Nihilism!!!
perry: There might be ways to change House policy that would matter in the midterms.
Like if I were them, I would stop doing food stamps and go full culture war — defend the police, build the wall, a bill encouraging NFL players to stand during the pledge, etc.
There are probably ways to run the House that are more Trump-like, in other words,
and I think that might have marginal electoral effects.
clare.malone: OK, that’s fair.
And that would be a definite departure from the current course of action.
But that sounds like a full Freedom Caucus speakership, not a McCarthy one. So it would have to be an upheaval speakership election.
natesilver: It seems like you guys are ignoring some important ways that the House could matter.
In Room, The Elephant
micah: Nate, what you talking about?
What if Rudy Giuliani is right about something for the first time in many years, and Mueller actually does come back with findings before Sept. 1?
What if Trump fires Mueller? What if he fires Rosenstein?
What if Trump pardons Jared Kushner after Mueller indicts him?
All of these are very real possibilities.
Nate, what does this have to do with anything!!!!
clare.malone: Nate literally just changed the entire convo.
perry: Would Ryan react differently in any of those situations than McCarthy would?
Would Ryan react differently to that than Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan?
micah: In Room, A Non Sequitur
natesilver: I’m just saying we’re debating all these minutia of what the House’s agenda will be for the rest of the year, and that’ll all be outweighed by an order of magnitude if any of the aforementioned Mueller-related things happen.
So, yes, how would Ryan react (as compared to McCarthy or Jordan) to an obstruction of justice finding, for example?
micah: The same.
natesilver: 
micah: The same, according to my gut feeling which is based on not much at all.
clare.malone: Jordan might act differently.
micah: Oh, yeah …
natesilver: One could maaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyybeee argue that having Ryan still in place as speaker could help the GOP in that instance.
He could try to play like he’s the reasonable man in the room, a framing that the media tends to eat up with Ryan, just so the GOP can buy time and see how the midterms go.
clare.malone: I’ve lost track. Does Nate think Ryan should resign?
natesilver: I think Republicans should do whatever the hell they want. I don’t think the overall electoral effects are liable to be profound either way unless there’s a messy transition or speakership battle, and even then they’ll be like the seventh most important issue.
If somehow that messy transition battle coincided with a big development in the Mueller probe where Congress was compelled to weigh in — I guess that’s the worst-case scenario for the GOP, insofar as this goes.
clare.malone: So you’re lightweight on Team Nihilist.
micah: OK, actually, if we use Trump score as a proxy for “will do what benefits Trump,” then here’s the ranking from most pro-Trump to least:
perry: The Trump score is broken in this case then. On a Mueller probe scale, it should be, in terms of loyalty to Trump: 1. Jordan 2. McCarthy 3. Ryan. Or maybe: 1. Jordan/McCarthy 2. Ryan. Or: 1. Jordan/McCarthy/Ryan.
OK, closing thoughts?
natesilver: I’d just keep in mind that the next GOP leader will likely face either a Democratic House or a very narrow GOP majority, neither of which is much fun.
clare.malone: Do you think if Netflix offered Ryan a development deal he’d leave early?
I’m half serious. If it’s such a shit job and his leaving will have no real effect, why wouldn’t he leave early?
I guess that’s my ultimate last thought: I don’t think the speakership matters to voters.
micah: Team Nihilism!
natesilver: It’s a bit humiliating, I guess? Ryan tries to brand himself as someone who’s principled rather than transactional.
micah: The Trump presidency has been really bad for the Ryan brand.
However his tenure ends.
natesilver: Arguably Ryan has been bad for the Trump presidency too.