To adapt the old phrase to today’s GOP: The ships are leaving the sinking rat.
That’s the moral of Paul Ryan’s unexpected but not surprising announcement this week that he will give up the speakership — the second Republican speaker to do so in just three years — and retire after 20 years in the House. The Wisconsin congressman pleaded a desire to spend more time raising his children. This, presumably, after he’d abandoned hope of raising the child in the White House.
Ryan’s departure comes atop the three dozen and counting House Republicans who’ve decided they have better things to do in life than either lose their seats in November or spend the next few years in the likely minority, carping about Nancy Pelosi and trying to stop the president’s impeachment.
Many of these Republicans once believed that Donald Trump alone possessed the kind of political virility needed to vanquish Hillary Clinton and make America great again. Only belatedly have they figured out that the virility comes with a case of syphilis.
“There’s a lot of weariness and a lot of exhaustion, frankly,” Charlie Dent, one of the retiring Republicans, told CNN this week. “The litmus test for being a Republican these days is not about any given set of ideals or principles; it’s about loyalty to the man, and I think that’s challenging.”
Dent is a Pennsylvania moderate in a district Trump won by 7.6 points — not a comfortable margin considering Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory last month in a Pennsylvania district Trump won by nearly 20 points. Much the same could be said of New Jersey’s Rodney Frelinghuysen (Trump by 0.9 percent), Washington’s Dave Reichert (Clinton by 3), or Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Clinton by 19.6). The last time Republicans had anywhere near this number of House retirements, 27 in 2008, Democrats picked up 21 seats.
Live by Trump; die by him. Liberals may despise Ryan for the tax bill or other policies they oppose on ideological grounds. But from a conservative point of view, that was not a failure. Instead, it was the Faustian bargain he struck with the president, normalizing the abnormal and forgiving the unforgivable for the sake of a single mediocre policy win.
The world will little note nor long remember that in 2017 Republicans cut the top marginal rate to 37 percent from 39.6 percent and otherwise tried but failed to kill Obamacare. It will remember the alacrity and ease with which the supposedly likable face of pro-growth, family-friendly conservatism opportunistically played the sycophant to the congenitally mendacious and previously priapic nativist bigot who, through a bad fluke, captured the White House.
A conservative rejoinder to this critique is that the speaker had no choice; that Trump was the lemon with which he had to make lemonade. Nonsense. Congress and the White House are coequals, and Ryan and other Republicans who saw Trump for what he is never owed him obeisance. They owed the country an alternative political vision, untainted by Trumpism, which could emerge from the debacle of this presidency with clean hands. Ryan’s failure to deliver one will be remembered as the central fact of his once-bright career.
Is there an alternative?
Among Republicans, Ohio’s John Kasich, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake and John McCain have sought in different ways to offer one, without immediate success but with integrity, honor and a sense of the long view. In a party of Pétains they are the conservative de Gaulles.
There are also grass-root efforts, not all of them partisan or even particularly right-leaning, but committed to defending foundational liberal values globally in an era of creeping authoritarianism and debased populism. One of them is the nonpartisan Renew Democracy Initiative, led by Garry Kasparov, which had its launch this month.
“There is still a center in Western politics, and it needs to be revitalized intellectually, culturally, and politically,” reads a plank in its manifesto (to which I’m a signatory, along with more illustrious names like Norman Foster, Anne Applebaum and Mario Vargas Llosa).
“The center-right and center-left are still joined by a broad set of common values, including respect for free speech and dissent, a belief in the benefits of international trade and immigration, respect for law and procedural legitimacy, a suspicion of cults of personality, and an understanding that free societies require protection from authoritarians promising easy fixes to complex problems.”
This may not be a strictly Republican position, certainly not in this administration. It is a republican one. And it offers conservatives disgusted with what their former partisan home has become a different sort of base from which they can begin to build a better form of politics, free of both the corruptions of Trumpism and the capitulations of Ryanism.
Liberals who understand that our common political health requires a morally and intellectually sound conservative movement might consider getting aboard.