Tears were shed in the closed-door Republican meeting Wednesday morning when House Speaker Paul Ryan formally announced his retirement. The sorrow spilled into the marble halls of the Capitol, giving the building the air of a funeral parlor throughout the day, but critics say that had more to do with the rotting corpse that is the contemporary GOP than with Ryan’s early departure.
Still, most Republicans followed Ryan’s lead and tried to put on a happy face, arguing that his retirement had to do with his desire to spend time with his kids, not the dire odds facing the GOP this fall.
“I really do not believe whether I stay or go in 2019 is going to affect a person’s individual race for Congress,” Ryan told reporters at a press conference overflowing with reporters. “I’m grateful that we have unified government, that the president with his victory gave us, so we got all these big things done. We’re going to have a great record to run on. We have a great economy. Great accomplishments.”
Ryan’s record since taking the speaker’s gavel is largely the same as Trump’s, which means he’s ushered through a sweeping tax reform proposal, rolled back a slate of Obama-era regulations, and unwound the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. That’s why many Republicans had anticipated Ryan’s retirement.
“Being speaker in this environment, with the dynamic in the Congress the way that they are, there’s a tremendous amount of wear and tear, right? So, how long do you do it and what are your objectives?” retiring Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) told The Daily Beast.
Ryan also was able to keep many of the inter-party food fights that dragged down former Speaker John Boehner from seeing the light of day on his watch, in part because he had a Republican in the White House. But that Republican was Donald Trump who, Costello argued, Ryan handled perfectly, especially when it came to Trump’s knee-jerk Twitter habit.
“I think he handled that expertly and spent very little time dealing with it. I mean, what did he do? He said, ‘I didn’t read it this morning’ or ‘I haven’t really thought about it.’ I mean, I don’t think he really spent much time worrying about that stuff. I think he got, candidly, I think he got a hall pass on that stuff largely,” Costello argued.
But Ryan also helped Trump and the GOP balloon the federal deficit, and the speaker carried water for the president at every turn. He did that even as polls continuously showed Trump with historically low approval ratings. Ryan never pivoted to the middle or changed the party’s agenda, even as his party lost election after election after election since taking over the White House and reclaiming the Senate.
That has some in the GOP warning their colleagues to stop pretending that positive short-term economic indicators and an election map that largely tilts in their favor will be enough to carry the party to victory this fall. On Wednesday Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) also announced he’s retiring, which means more than 40 Republicans are leaving open seats up for grabs.
“Sure, I mean, open seats are open seats. Whether they’re Republican or Democrat, depending on where they are they’re much more competitive than the seat that is held by the incumbent,” Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) told The Daily Beast. “It’s amazing to me. I didn’t realize it when I got here what an advantage being an incumbent is. You’re out there and you just have this built-in advantage if you take advantage of it, if you go do those kinds of things. If you’re going to four or five, five or six days a week you’re meeting and getting a lot of name recognition. You get a lot of publicity.”
Since Trump became president, Democrats have now won gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey, a special election in Alabama, and last month the party shocked political watchers when Conor Lamb won a special election in a Pennsylvania district that Trump won by 19 points in 2016.
“I’ll tell you what. If people didn’t get the message from that race in southwestern Pennsylvania, well they’ll never get a message,” retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) told The Daily Beast. “If you live in a swing or marginal district, if a member represents a swing or marginal district, he or she knows that they have to run the hardest, most serious campaign in their lives.
“This is a toxic and challenging political environment for Republicans. It’s a perilous environment. Let’s be honest,” Dent said. “We shouldn’t be kidding ourselves about this: Big wave coming—get off the beach.”
Party leaders, though, are sticking to Ryan’s talking points and arguing his early exit won’t impact other races.
“I don’t think so,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), who is in charge of the House Republican re-election efforts, told The Daily Beast before he hastily stormed onto the House floor. “Yeah, I don’t. Thank you.”
Democrats say the GOP leadership under Trump has remained in a perpetual state of reality-TV-induced mental coma about their party’s unpopular president and agenda. Now they say it extends to how they’re spinning Speaker Ryan’s departure.
“What else are they going to say? They’re not going to declare defeat,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the deputy chair of the DNC, told The Daily Beast. “They’re going to fight back. I mean, they’re in it to win it just like we are, but I mean it’s not a good sign. It’s chaos.”
Ellison said Ryan’s departure won’t change his party’s strategy this fall, which he said includes registering new voters and continuing to excite voter turnout nationwide. But other Democrats argue Ryan is smart and that his departure at age 49, after serving a mere three years as speaker, shows that he saw the writing on the wall.
“A sitting speaker… throws in the towel halfway through the year, a midterm election year where the stakes are enormous? I call that seismic,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told The Daily Beast. “I mean, it’s almost tantamount to admitting ‘We’re unlikely to maintain our majority. I’m unlikely to be speaker again because of that, and I’d rather retire than face that.’”
Connolly argued that members of his own party wore similar beer goggles not so long ago.
“There’s no end of delusional thinking in Washington,” he said. “Especially when you’re facing the prospect of your own demise, you grasp at all kinds of straws to avoid dealing with it forthrightly. I would say on our side, in the 2010 midterm election there was some of that on the Democratic side, but I don’t think it equips you for coping with it.”