Read: Paul Ryan makes his exit.
Ryan, in his own defense, saw his role as mitigating damage. He suggested, in a summer 2018 interview, that Trump could’ve been worse if he hadn’t been in the room: “I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, ‘I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy. I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal.’” When asked to specify a tragedy, he replied: “No, I don’t want to do that.”
His detractors don’t buy his defense. Norman Ornstein, the nonpartisan Washington analyst who has tracked Congress since the 1970s, tells me that Ryan’s “encouragement and protection of Devin Nunes as he tried mightily to sabotage the Russia investigation is a serious black mark”—but that his accountability deficit is far deeper: “Under his aegis, there was no oversight either of corruption or misdeeds by Trump, his family, his staff and his Cabinet … no hearings on the Puerto Rico hurricane disaster, child separation, budget cuts to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] leaving us more vulnerable to pandemics, or any other examples of failures in governance. And his biggest legacy will be the ballooning debt burden that will make it difficult to get us out of the next recession, and will be a burden for the country for many decades.”
In recent days, he has also declined to hold his fellow Republicans in Wisconsin accountable. His friend Scott Walker lost his bid for a third gubernatorial term, but legislative Republicans in Ryan’s home state have spurned the peaceful transfer of power. Last week, in a lame-duck session, they passed measures to hamper the powers of the incoming Democratic governor—an unprecedented move that prompted Sheldon Lubar, a prominent Republican businessman and donor, to point out that the power curb “ignores the will of the majority of Wisconsin voters.” Ryan has yet to utter a word; a spokesman told the press last week, “I don’t have anything for you.”
It was clear, when Ryan announced his retirement back in April, that he foresaw a day of reckoning. The blue wave was building, fueled by a grassroots thirst for checks and balances; Trump’s baggage would clearly be on the ballot; and some of Ryan’s most cherished dreams—cutting Social Security and Medicare entitlements, repealing and replacing Obamacare—were destined to die. So he did what politicians often do in dire circumstances: He simply declared victory. He lauded what he saw as his signature achievement as speaker, a “major reform of the tax code for the first time in 36 years, which has already had a huge success for this country.”
Fiscal experts have long pointed out that tilting tax cuts to the highest earners and flooding new red ink on the budget ledger do not constitute “a huge success.” But even now, in the waning days of his tenure, Ryan is still touting the tax-cut law, insisting that it was a great issue on the midterm-campaign trail. The polls said otherwise; Gallup reported in October that only 39 percent of Americans supported the law, and Republicans scaled back their ads about it. Nevertheless, on November 30, when the Post asked Ryan why the law didn’t sell well during the midterms, he replied: “It actually did, in many ways. We pushed it hard from the House … When we had the opportunity to talk about [it], it was spectacular … Good story to tell.”
It is merely a story he tells himself—just as his claim that House Republicans were “a pretty good governing party” is a story he tells himself. In truth, he leaves Congress after his Republican brethren were drowned in the biggest blue wave since 1974. He leaves Congress with his conservative ideals in tatters. He leaves Congress having consoled himself, as he remarked on December 3, “that in a democracy, sometimes you fall short.”