What Happens to Paul Ryan If Trump Loses?

The rise of Donald Trump has left the speaker of the House, and the Republican Party, in an almost impossible situation.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

What happens to the Republican Party after November 8, particularly if Donald Trump loses? One clue comes from a recent Bloomberg Poll: When asked which leader better represents their view what the Republican Party should stand for, 51 percent of likely voters who lean Republican or identify as Republican picked Trump, while 33 percent picked House Speaker Paul Ryan (15 percent said they weren’t sure.)

Paul Ryan: The highest ranking Republican elected official, the former vice presidential standard bearer, perhaps the leading elected policy intellectual in the GOP, who is now being attacked regularly by the party’s current presidential standard bearer; who has Breitbart.com calling him a secret supporter of Hillary Clinton, and Sean Hannity calling him a “saboteur” who needs to be replaced;  who has both conservative Freedom Caucus members and other discontented Trump-supporting colleagues ripping him and threatening to vote against him when the vote for Speaker occurs on the House floor on January 3 next. The Paul Ryan, who has struggled manfully to walk the fine line between Trump supporters and Trump himself, getting distance from Trump without renouncing him, and who has tried even harder to turn the focus to the policy plans of his House party.

The fact that Trump, his advisor Hannity, and a slice of his caucus are hostile to Ryan is less ominous in a sense than the poll result; it is clear that there is now a yawning gap between the Republican establishment leadership and the party rank-and-file. All of that will make governing by finding the necessary coalitions and compromises much more difficult. But it also suggests that the vote for Speaker will be one of the most fascinating and tumultuous post-election events.

Of course, it is possible that the Trump meltdown in October will lead not only to a Clinton victory but to a massive Democratic sweep, including taking back a majority in the House. That would almost certainly make Nancy Pelosi Speaker again. Of course, it might be a challenge for her—the new Democratic majority, if there is one, will be thin, and most of the new members will be from Red districts, with several pushed by their local politics to reject Pelosi. But there would not likely be an internal challenger, and her popularity within her caucus, along with her tireless efforts to elect those Democrats, would work very much for her.

Assuming that Clinton wins, what if Democrats fall short in taking back the House? That is where the dynamics get so interesting. Democrats will certainly pick up seats—most likely, a minimum of ten to fifteen, more likely twenty or more. That would reduce the GOP margin substantially, to perhaps five to ten seats. And, as I have written before, the Republican departures, both voluntary and involuntary, will come disproportionately from leadership loyalist ranks, strengthening the hand and role of both Freedom Caucus radicals and other Trumpist populists.

Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Meadows (who led the charge to oust John Boehner,) said recently, “A lot of people who believe so desperately that we need to put Donald Trump in the White House -- they question the loyalty of the Speaker." Meadows and his allies are trying to delay the Caucus vote, scheduled for the week after the election, to mobilize opposition to Ryan. They might confront Ryan after the election and before the Republican Conference votes to choose its candidate for Speaker, demanding concessions that would include cutting discretionary spending even more sharply, returning to the use of the debt ceiling as a hostage to force the new President Clinton to capitulate to their demands, and refusing to cooperate with her on any area of public policy—a set of demands Ryan could not accept without destroying his capacity to lead, along with deepening governmental dysfunction beyond its current sorry state.

Ryan might well look at this looming mess and decide it is not worth it. He could say, “I stepped into the breach reluctantly to save the party and the country and become Speaker. Now I want to step back and take the role where I can do the most good: chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.” Or, to preserve his future role in politics, he could decide it is a good time to leave the House to spend more time with his young family.

But if he forges forward, what could happen? The best case scenario for Ryan: he skillfully and persistently works his battered caucus to understand he is their only realistic alternative, deflects non-negotiable demands, limps through to a victory on the House floor, and returns to the same dilemma he faced in 2016, and that his predecessor faced from 2011 on: the only way to make policy that can actually be enacted into law is to lose a sizable core of Republicans and replace them with Democrats. There are only so many times he can do that without facing a broader internal revolt. But the failure or refusal to do so means he has failed in his fundamental duty as a constitutional officer, the Speaker not of his party but of the whole House.

What if that effort fails and he is opposed on the floor by 20-30 of his colleagues—falling far short on the first ballot of the majority necessary? One possibility is that the Ryan opponents turn around and support him on a second ballot, using the stinging embarrassment to “teach him a lesson.” That would leave Ryan as Speaker but with the same old dilemma—and a sustained mobilization of virulent anti-Ryan vitriol from the alt-right.

But another would be that the opposition stays firm—with those members feeling the heat from Breitbart and other right wing publications, along with the threat of primary challenges in 2018—for additional ballots, leaving the prize of the speakership in limbo. The Republican conference would reconvene, of course, and might choose an alternative who could command party unity, but it is hard to see who that would be.

Hyper-ambitious Utahn Jason Chaffetz might put himself forward, and the Freedom Caucus could support Jim Jordan of Ohio, Steve Scalise of Louisiana or perhaps Jeb Hensarling of Texas. But a Speaker candidate sharply to the right of the very conservative Paul Ryan might motivate a core of leadership loyalists to pull a reverse Freedom Caucus maneuver and refuse to support the new upstart nominee.

Enter the Democrats, who would have zero reason to stand by idly while the Republicans bicker and maneuver. One can imagine an emissary from Democratic ranks approaching a group of mainstream Republican conservatives and offering a set of options:

  1. Support for a more moderate Republican like Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent, in return for a package of reforms to return to the regular order—a guarantee that core bills will get up-or-down- votes on the House floor, that minority amendments will be allowed, that there will be real conference committees with the Senate to reconcile bills, and maybe the institutionalization of the McConnell Rule to avoid confrontations over the debt ceiling.

  2. Support for a moderate Democrat, in return for a guarantee of substantial Republican input via amendments and agenda setting. That could be a current House member, such as Jim Cooper of Tennessee or Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Or it could be a widely respected former member like Kansas’ Dan Glickman. Remember: the Speaker of the House does not have to be a member of the House.

  3. Support for a problem-solving, fair-minded former Republican House member as Speaker, so long as that individual promised both to support reforms to restore the regular order, and to be meticulously fair to both parties. The obvious choices here include Tom Davis of Virginia and Vin Weber of Minnesota.

Admittedly, these out of the box alternatives are just that, and while we have seen similar things happen in state legislatures, they would be unique for Congress. It also tells us something about the current House that finding a “moderate” Republican alternative to Paul Ryan is almost impossible, and that Dent would not likely be acceptable to most members of the Republican conference.

But it is a testament to the politics of our times that Paul Ryan, the most conservative Speaker in the history of the country, won’t be conservative enough for a solid core of his own party in Congress, and is under siege from his party’s presidential nominee and acolytes. And the dynamic in the House will be an early window into the Republican civil war that will follow if Trump loses.