Back in the more innocent political days of January, Paul Ryan cast an eye out over the promised land of Republican-controlled Washington and thought: Now is the time to put forth my sweeping 200-day agenda!
Before the exodus of August recess, declared the speaker, his team would achieve amazing things for America: overhauling the tax code, funding a border wall, rolling back regulation on business, lifting the debt ceiling, and, to placate the new president, investing a chunk of change in infrastructure. Most vitally, the party would fulfill its seven-year vow to kill Obamacare. This last was to happen by early April.
All of which evokes the Yiddish proverb: Man plans, God laughs.
Not that the past 200 days have been a total bust. Yes, the health-care struggle led to a series of high-profile humiliations for Republicans, permanent tax reform looks increasingly impossible, an ugly debt-ceiling battle still looms, and infrastructure is nowhere on the radar. That said, Obama-era regulations are being axed willy-nilly. Heading into break, the House jammed a $1.6 billion down payment on Trump’s big, beautiful wall into a defense spending bill. And after much blood and tears, Ryan did whip his cats into passing an Obamacare replacement. Admittedly, the bill was so unpopular the Senate immediately disavowed it. Still, the speaker did his part.
But what Ryan & Co. achieved these past months is only part of the picture. There is also the crucial question of what they learned. As oft noted, until Trump, most House Republicans had known life only as obstructionists. Governing was a foreign concept. This shift was all the more dramatic for Ryan, who could no longer skate by on his conference’s deep and abiding Obama hatred. With unified rule, the speaker needed a new strategy for managing his troops, while simultaneously wrangling a twitchy, politically ignorant president.
So how’s that learning curve coming along? Hard to tell. But the more vivid lessons Ryan should have absorbed thus far include:
1. Unity is infinitely harder to maintain when you’re playing offense than defense. Derp, right? Yet somehow, Ryan and his leadership team strolled into this session thinking their “rare opportunity”—How many times have GOP lawmakers uttered that phrase this year?—to get stuff done would spur members to embrace compromise. Small differences would be set aside. The legislative machine would chug if not smoothly, at least steadily forward. In reality, the prospect of bearing full responsibility for legislation has made members all the more prone to fret, and dig their heels in, over the details. Forget high-profile deals. (Though all agree that Speaker Super Wonk should have worked to craft a halfway coherent health-care vision.) Even run-of-the-mill legislative business remains a slog. “Can’t get a budget done two years in a row despite being a former Budget chair himself,” a Democratic staffer sniffed. “The guy has preached about regular order for years.” (The process by which legislation makes its way through the appropriate committees and then onto the floor for debate, with all rank-and-file members allowed to offer amendments.) “They haven’t had a single open rule this year.”
2. Wonkery doesn’t win you votes. Ryan has long cherished his status as the GOP’s self-styled policymeister. But pointy-headed appeals have their limits, especially in a conference that prides itself on being anti-intellectual and anti-expertise. Ryan can do all the PowerPoint presentations on health care and taxes that his heart desires; it won’t rally members to his way of thinking. (In some cases, it only fuels the sneering.) Political salesmanship requires aiming for the gut not the head. This goes for lawmakers almost as much as for voters.
2a. No one in the conference read your “Better Way” blueprint. Certainly, no one read it and took it seriously. Ryan has on occasion expressed dismay that his members oppose some health-care or tax provision put forth in his much ballyhooed conservative agenda—which, he keeps insisting, the entire conference ran on. Not to hurt the speaker’s feelings, but the bulk of his team did not run on his plan, nor did they pay a lick of attention to its contents. It was released during the zaniest presidential race of modern American history, for God’s sake! Everyone—including Congress—was too busy gawking at Trump to notice anything else.
3. Same party or not, you cannot count on this president to support, much less ram through, your priorities. Or, as one Republican Senate staffer grumped of Ryan, “I hope he’s learned that he can’t just throw out whatever pet policy he fancies at the time and then expect Trump to carry it across the finish line.” Even when Trump and Ryan are on the same page, Trump has yet to grasp the art of the legislative deal. He’s forever pushing counterproductive deadlines and issuing empty threats. Sure, he’s made clear he’ll sign whatever Congress sends him, regardless of content. But when it comes to getting the bills there, Trump is often undermining Ryan and McConnell as much as helping them.
4. When you displease Trump, he will gleefully savage you. Publicly, and with his trademark Twitter eloquence. Be the matter foreign (Russia sanctions) or domestic (health care), this president handles disappointment poorly. And his immediate—really, his only—impulse is to blame others. Since Republicans control both sides of the Capitol, congressional chiefs can expect those presidential fingers wagging their way in times of trouble. If that makes members’ lives electorally fraught, so be it. Trump takes care of Trump.
6. The Freedom Caucus will continue to deal you fits. It’s what they do. This is not to say the crusaders won’t give an inch once leadership has given them a mile, but it’s not like they’ve suddenly become team players on tricky issues. Plus, caucus chairman Mark Meadows is awfully cozy with Trump, so Ryan would do well to watch his back.
7. Mick Mulvaney is as big a pain in the butt in the administration as he was in Congress. Maybe even bigger. As much as Representative Mulvaney liked to slap his leaders around for being a bunch of appeasement-happy RINO squishes, budget director Mulvaney is even more critical and insulting—and now being goaded by an out-of-control White House. Good times.
8. The Senate will keep on peeing in your pool. This is related to lesson #1, but even more glaring. When senators could count on Obama to veto legislation, they could now and then toss the House a bone. (As in 2015, when both chambers passed an Obamacare repeal bill.) But with nothing standing between senators and the wrath of voters, they can no longer afford to humor the lower chamber. And, per lesson #2, don’t look to Trump to jerk senators into line. Many of them take bullying very badly. (Just ask Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke how his warning call to Senator Lisa Murkowski in the wake of her health-care opposition went over.)
Here’s to hoping Ryan and his team are having a super relaxing summer break. Because come Labor Day, the fun gears back up. There will be scads of ticklish budget issues to contend with—and so many more useful lessons to be learned.