For someone reputed to be a deep, long-range thinker, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., showed a surprising lack of foresight in his handling of President Donald Trump.
Imagine what will happen if special counsel Robert Mueller concludes that Trump’s campaign knowingly colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election and that Trump obstructed justice in an attempt to bury the evidence. That outcome is by no means certain, but it is certainly possible - and, when it comes to a finding of obstruction, probable. How will a Democrat-controlled House react? Because that prospect, too, seems increasingly likely with every Republican retirement - including now Ryan’s own.
If Mueller delivers the goods (and maybe even if he doesn’t), a Democrat-dominated House would likely begin impeachment proceedings on, oh say, Jan. 21, 2019 - and it wouldn’t take long to pass the articles of impeachment because in the House the minority can’t block action. The Senate, in all probability, will still lack the 67 votes to remove Trump from office. If the Mueller findings are damning enough, however, at least a few of the more moderate GOP senators will abandon him - as will some percentage of Trump-friendly but not Trump-fanatical voters. Trump might well decide that, rather than prolong the agony, he will call it quits after one term and return to his “truly classy” lair at Trump Tower - so much nicer than the “stupid” White House.
Who would the Republicans nominate to succeed Trump? Vice President Mike Pence is an obvious option, but he might be even more tainted by association with a disgraced ex-president and even weaker politically than Gerald Ford was in 1976. Republicans voters might be ready to reboot with a candidate untainted by Trumpism. The Paul Ryan of two years ago would have seemed an obvious choice. He was young, handsome, thoughtful and earnest, and he stood for a brand of inclusive Republicanism far removed from Trump’s unhinged rants. What better way to turn the page from a candidate who binge-watches Fox News than to choose one who reads budget documents for fun?
And so it might have gone, except that Ryan fatally compromised his integrity and reputation by his accommodation with Trump. Ryan figured that he and other congressional Republicans could manipulate an ignorant president into signing off on their agenda while he spent his time on the golf course. How did that work out?
Ryan can and will point to his signal achievement: the big tax-cut bill. But for someone who staked his career on addressing the alarming growth of social-welfare spending - the chief driver of the deficit - this was at best a hollow victory. In 2012, when the federal debt stood at $16 trillion, Ryan said: “We have a debt crisis right in front of us, and what brings down Empires - past and future - is debt.” Today the debt is more than $21 trillion - and climbing.
The GOP tax bill is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to add $1.9 trillion to the debt. Add in nearly $300 billion in additional spending over the next two years passed by Congress in March, and you’re looking at trillion-dollar annual deficits as far as the eye can see. There will be no entitlement reform, because Trump - “the king of debt” - couldn’t care less. So much for Ryan’s reputation as a fiscal conservative.
While acquiescing in this spending binge, Ryan had to bite his tongue and pretend that he didn’t hear the president praising neo-Nazis, defending Confederate monuments, vilifying mainly African American National Football League players, referring to African countries , Haiti and El Salvador as “shitholes,” demonizing immigrants as rapists and murderers, endorsing an accused child molester for the Senate and committing a thousand other infractions against common decency. In June 2016 Ryan did upbraid Trump for suggesting that a federal judge was biased against him because of his Mexican heritage: “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Ryan called it. But he has had next to nothing to say as that textbook has expanded into multiple volumes. So much for Ryan’s reputation as a Jack Kemp-style, bleeding-heart conservative who wants to attract minorities to the GOP.
I used to think that Ryan was smart, brave and principled because he was willing to touch the “third rail” of American politics - entitlement reform. I thought he would be the future of the Republican Party. I no longer think that. No one does. He missed his chance when he kowtowed to Trump.
Imagine if Ryan had refused to support his party’s noxious nominee and had spoken out consistently against him. He might well have lost a speakership he never wanted anyway - but he would have kept his self-respect and possibly his future political viability. Instead Ryan leaves the House a pathetic, pitiable figure distrusted by both Trumpkins and NeverTrumpers. His downfall ought to serve as a warning to other Republicans of the price of selling one’s soul to a president with an infinite appetite for depravity.
Max Boot is a Russian-American author, consultant, editorialist, lecturer, and military historian. He worked as a writer and editor for Christian Science Monitor and then for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s. He is now Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.