In all of the speculation about what Americans will wake up to on November 9 (aside from relief the election is over, assuming there are clear winners and losers who concede), there is one prominent politician who will probably suffer from a chronic postelection headache: House Speaker Paul Ryan.
There is a small but quite real chance that a Trump-led Republican meltdown will award Democrats control of the House, leaving Ryan with one of America’s worst jobs, House Minority Leader.
But at least that disaster would leave Ryan with a lot of spare time on his hands. The more likely but equally hellish outcome would be a significantly reduced GOP majority in the House, leaving Ryan at the mercy of surly backbenchers and vengeful Trumpites. Norm Ornstein explains what that might mean for Ryan’s immediate future:
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.
In other words, a weakened Ryan might be right back in the same impossible position John Boehner occupied in much of Barack Obama’s second term, with the added problem of a GOP divided not just over legislative strategy and tactics, but over the recently concluded presidential election and the path forward for the entire party.
If, as appears increasingly likely, Republicans lose control of the Senate while losing the White House for the third consecutive time, Ryan would become the subject and object of all of the angst in the GOP over its not-very-effective leadership. Perhaps that would enhance his already-massive Beltway prestige, but probably at a terrible cost in the party and the country at large. He is already significantly less popular with rank-and-file Republicans than Trump. Becoming a one-man choke point obstructing everything Hillary Clinton tries to do will definitely damage his general popularity. But he won’t be in any better position than Boehner in trying to impose the GOP’s will on the White House. To the extent that the entire Trump phenomenon was partly caused by Republican “base” frustration with GOP fecklessness in the fight to destroy Obama, it will not go away during another phase of divided government, even if Trump himself goes away, which is extremely unlikely. Like Boehner, Ryan will probably have to rely on Democratic votes now and then to keep the country (or at least the federal government) functioning. Like Boehner, he will earn burning hatred from many of his fellow Republicans each time he does so.
Ornstein thinks Ryan might look at the terrible situation he is in and decide to make a strategic retreat to preserve his political future, and perhaps his sanity:
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.
It doesn’t say much for the health of the Republican Party that the leader most likely to be left standing on November 9 — a pol, moreover, who has already been on a national ticket and has been lionized in the national media to the point of embarrassment — might well pack up the U-Haul and head back to Wisconsin. But that may be the most rational course of action for Paul Ryan, who would benefit from an environment where his endlessly discussed potential does not perpetually and conspicuously stop short of actual accomplishment. Becoming mayor of Janesville might be a good call.