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How Paul Ryan lost the Republican Party

/ Managing Editor - April 15, 2018

Editors’ note: In this archival post, first published April 15, 2018, contributor Larry Bartels examined how Republicans pushed then-House speaker Paul Ryan to leave his position.

Two years ago, in 2016, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan was the Republican Party’s indispensable man, uniting the party’s unruly congressional caucus behind an agenda of cutting taxes and shrinking the welfare state. Now Ryan (Wis.) is retiring to spend more time with his teenage children.

What happened? Ryan’s speakership began with strong support from rank-and-file Republicans, but that support eroded substantially as he struggled to distance himself from President Trump. His departure underlines the extent to which, as Robert Reich put it, “the Republican Party no longer stands for anything other than Trump.”

Ryan’s relationship with the president has been fraught from the start. He expressed repeated, if carefully modulated, criticism of Trump during the campaign, eventually withdrawing his support in the wake of the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording. Ryan was just one of many prominent Republicans to disavow their party’s presidential candidate. But the rank and file didn’t seem to care — the vast majority of Republican voters supported Trump anyway.

Ryan’s tightrope walk continued after Trump entered the White House. In August, he told a CNN forum that the president “messed up” his original response to the racist violence in Charlottesville. A few days later, a Trump tweet blamed “Mitch M & Paul R” for the debt ceiling “mess” when they failed to heed his advice on legislative strategy. “Every morning,” Ryan complained in a comic turn, “I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend that I didn’t see later.”

Ryan rode the tiger long enough to win a massive tax cut for corporations. But with domestic policy stalled, a damaging trade war looming (despite the speaker publicly urging the White House to stand down), and Washington embroiled in seemingly endless controversy over Trump’s behavior, Ryan decided that he had had enough.

In the fall, veteran journalist Chris Cillizza depicted Ryan as having “spent the past two years drawing lines in the sand — and then erasing them when Trump, inevitably, overstepped.” The futility of Ryan’s resistance, Cillizza surmised, stemmed from the fact that “there is still considerable peril in openly breaking with Trump,” who “remains very, very popular with people who voted for him.”

Actually, “very, very popular” is something of an exaggeration. Republican identifiers and “leaners” in a November 2017 YouGov survey gave Trump an average rating of just 7.1 on a 0-to-10 scale, hardly a rousing endorsement. But they were even less enthusiastic about other Republican leaders — including Ryan, whose average rating was a very lukewarm 5.0. (By comparison, Democrats gave Barack Obama an average rating of 8.3 and Nancy Pelosi a 5.9.)

The Republicans who remained loyal to Ryan despite his friction with Trump were primarily those who shared his unease with the party’s conservative cultural turn. But they are a distinct minority. Most Republicans strongly support the American flag and the English language and worry about discrimination against whites and protecting our borders from undocumented immigrants. Those people rated Trump much more favorably than Ryan, regardless of their support for the traditional Republican agenda of limited government.

The extent of Republicans’ frustration with their own party establishment is underlined by responses to a question in the YouGov survey asking, “When Donald Trump disagrees with Republicans in Congress, who do you think is more likely to be right?” Republicans chose Trump, 52 percent to 15 percent (with the rest saying “neither” or unsure). Among the energized half who voted in the 2014 midterm election, the margin was even more lopsided, with 65 percent choosing Trump and just 10 percent expressing confidence in the party’s congressional leaders. Clearly, insofar as rank-and-file Republicans have taken sides in the intraparty quarrels between Trump and the party establishment, they have mostly sided with Trump.

Ryan’s retirement announcement spurred pessimism regarding Republicans’ chances of retaining their House majority in the 2018 midterm elections. According to a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “It seems clear now that the fight is to hold the Senate.” The Senate map gives Republicans a big advantage, with just one incumbent running in a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. But McConnell is even more unpopular than Ryan. Republicans in that November 2017 survey gave him an average rating of just 3.9 on the 0-to-10 scale, while Democrats and “pure” independents put him at 2.9.

If Ryan’s departure makes McConnell the poster boy for the Republican establishment, he may be as much of a drag on the party’s electoral fortunes as Trump himself. Democrats will fault him for cooperating with the president on Obamacare repeal and tax-cutting, while Republicans will fault him for doing it with “resentment and sometimes outright hostility.” For most Republicans nowadays, moderation in supporting Trump is no virtue.

Larry M. Bartels is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. His books include “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government” (with Christopher H. Achen) and “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age,” second edition.