Paul Ryan’s choice to not seek re-election has more to do with the ever-changing Republican Party, than with the predicted fate of Trump, according to Richard Wagner
The immediate reaction to Paul Ryan’s decision to not run again was very predictable and monolithic. It’s pretty much along these lines:
The Republicans are a sinking ship. Trump is falling apart, and Paul Ryan is jumping off before the ship sinks.
It all ties into that same “It’s a referendum on Trump” rhetoric we heard following Doug Jones’s and Conor Lamb’s victories as Democrats in special elections. The problem with this rhetoric is that it barely skims the surface, and is largely wishful thinking. There may very well be a blue wave coming in 2018, but it’s not as much about Trump as many journalists and political opinion leaders seem to think.
Ryan is the “establishment” now, and the establishment is out of fashion
Following the Obama led a blue wave of 2008, Republicans had to begin a series of renovations of their party and the political movements behind it. From the libertarian flavored Tea Party to the more populist Trump movement, the one common denominator is disdain for the “establishment”. It was only 6 years ago that John Boehner was being chosen once again to retain his leadership of House Republicans, and Paul Ryan was being touted by right-winged opinion leaders (particularly Rush Limbaugh) is the better choice – the conservative outsider.
I was a little surprised in 2016 to see the disdain, therefore, that many Trump supporters had towards Paul Ryan. This is crucial to consider, however, as Paul Ryan went from being seen as the “conservative outsider” to being seen as the new John Boehner, the “moderate” Republican who is out of touch with the grassroots of the Trump movement.
Following Trump’s announcements to fulfill his promises on trade, Paul Ryan issued a statement of rebuttal, making some concessions that action should be taken on China, but largely denouncing Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs for their size and scope.
Ryan and the incoming Democrats so far
Conor Lamb and Doug Jones are the two big victories for Democrats so far in the Trump era. As explained before, winning in Virginia, New Jersey, and Oregon is hardly worth mentioning. But Lamb won in one of the “Big Three” rust belt states that Trump took from Democrats in 2016 – and in a very red district at that. Jones won a Senate seat in one of the reddest states in the union – Alabama.
However, Jones has avoided the trade issue altogether and has been willing to work with Trump on some issues, including the budget. Lamb ran as a pro-gun, pro-tariff Democrat. Now being a pro-gun Democrat in a red district is to be expected. That’s been a base issue for Republicans for decades, and it’s the kind of issue that a Democrat would have to largely agree with in order to win over enough Republican-leaning voters to win in Pennsylvania’s District 18. Hence, Democrats seem able to beat Congressional Republicans IF they agree with Trump on some of the issues that largely set him apart from mainstream conservative Republicans – like Paul Ryan.
Ryan sees this.
The Republican Party’s post-Reagan platform of free markets, free trade, lower taxes, deregulation, and a robust military – this platform is no longer a winning platform. Ryan seems to be principled, in that he doesn’t flip-flop on the issues and try to be “all things to all people”. Like him or not, he’s pretty consistent in his positions on most of these issues, only being willing at times to make concessions on military spending (as he did mid-Obama era when he was trying to reduce the deficit).
The Real Reason Ryan is leaving
This just isn’t his Republican Party anymore. Both the Republican Party and America will be impacted by the Trump movement for years to come, regardless of what happens to Trump himself.
As new Democrats embrace some of Trump’s positions, as Ryan himself was willing to make some concessions on this regarding China, it is clear that America’s trade policies will be more focused on trade deficit reduction in the years ahead. Furthermore, as Trump showed, a Republican platform that combines this trade agenda with calls for infrastructure investment, student loan reform, greater access to healthcare, sensible financial regulations (like Glass-Steagall) – this is a winning platform. If the Democrats are wise, in 2020, they will criticize Trump for where he has fallen short in delivering on this platform.
The Republicans tried a more libertarian flavor following the rise of Obama. With the Tea Party victories of 2010, it appeared that libertarian ideals could be their salvation. I certainly thought so at the time. I attributed Romney’s defeat to him being too reluctant to embrace this. In 2016, I thought for sure that Rand Paul was the future of the GOP. However, he barely got above 2% in the primaries and suspended his campaign rather early. For Paul Ryan, this libertarian flavored Republicanism would have been acceptable. He’s pretty much a small government guy, for the most part.
Trumpian populism, however, was just too much! Ryan faced two choices. He could either go against what he believes in, embrace Trump populism, and hope that enough people believe him that he could win in the rust belt state of Wisconsin, or stay true to himself, and probably lose. So, as he wants to stay true to his limited government conservatism, he decided it better to just not run, and leave the seat open for his party to nominate someone closer to the kinds of Wisconsinites who handed that state to Trump in 2016. Maybe the Republicans will do so, or maybe the Democrats will pick another “Conor Lamb” and essentially win by agreeing with Trump on half the issues.
Ryan’s Seat is Up for Grabs
This seat is the Democrat’s seat to win or to lose. If the Democrats pick a “Tim Kaine” type Democrat – a Clintonian corporatist, pro-TPP, etc. they might have a chance if the Republicans pick a terrible candidate like Roy Moore (their loser in the Alabama race). But a competent Republican would likely hold the seat against a corporate Democrat.
If the Democrats, however, pick another “Conor Lamb”, a pro-gun, pro-tariff Democrat who will oppose Trump on tax cuts and deregulation, but support him on the issues that Wisconsinites care about; their chances are very good, even against a good Republican.