Column: Tragedy of Paul Ryan

David Shribman

Finally, House Speaker Paul Ryan edged President Donald Trump out of the nation’s attention.

The Wisconsin Republican’s astonishing announcement that he would not seek another term rocked Washington in a way that almost nothing Trump has done, said, threatened, or tweeted.

Of course Ryan’s decision was prompted in large measure by Trump, the planet in the political solar system that has warped the orbit of all the other heavenly bodies.

For Ryan, there were few rewards in occupying a job that once carried the title “czar” (as in Czar Reed, House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, who ruled Washington at the end of the 19th century) and only to find himself feeling like an apparatchik. It was mortifying to watch his profile slide from visionary, which Ryan owned for a decade in the capital, to victim, a status his facial expression and drooping shoulders constantly revealed.

Speed back to 2012 and recall the reaction when former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the Republican presidential nominee, selected Ryan as his running mate. By passing over former Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and former Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Ryan emerged as the face of the Republican future.

The Paul Ryan story is a tragedy in multiple dimensions. The first is personal. No matter how much he talks about remaining part of the national debate, the word “former” will always precede his name. Hillary Clinton vowed to remain part of the national debate, but there is almost no one who has receded as swiftly from a position of influence and leadership than the woman Trump defeated.

Then there is the public tragedy. Many conservatives believed Ryan would be a counterpoint to the president, or at least a checkpoint for the president. Neither happened.

Finally, there is the civic tragedy. While Ryan was steeped in the conservative economic and philosophical thinking of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, Trump almost certainly could not describe them with any authority.

Much has been made of the political effect of the Ryan recision decision. The instant analysis was that it was a symbol of Republican hopelessness months before the midterm congressional elections. Republicans may still retain a slight advantage as November approaches, but they are clearly on the defensive and in danger of losing their House majority.

The Ryan decision puts even more emphasis on Senate races, which are more complicated and more visible than House contests.

With an unpredictable, unconventional, and unusually volatile president in the White House — and with vital issues such as immigration, health care, and entitlement overhaul begging for attention — few midterm congressional elections in modern time have loomed as quite so consequential.

Ryan was expected to deal with all three of those questions, all of which he has examined with unusual depth. Now he is in retreat and nearly in retirement. But he has captured the nation’s attention, though not necessarily its admiration.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Press-Gazette.