WASHINGTON — House speakers historically exit amid political intrigue, mounting scandal or humiliating rejection by the voters. By contrast, Paul D. Ryan’s disclosure on Wednesday that he would step aside at the end of the year was quite calm and businesslike even as he gave that most Washington of reasons — more time with the family.
But the matter-of-fact way Mr. Ryan handled this bit of personal news belied the tumult that is certain to follow the unusually timed announcement that he would not seek re-election, essentially throwing his party’s leadership up for grabs seven months before an election that will decide whether his successor as speaker will be a Democrat or a Republican.
For starters, the Ryan departure is sure to fuel a growing sense that House Republicans are in real trouble given that the top man wants to escape gracefully before being forced out.
It will create a power vacuum in the already unruly House even as his top two lieutenants, Representatives Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, maneuver to take Mr. Ryan’s place. It will hurt party fund-raising while intensifying enthusiasm among charged-up Democrats who believe they have Mr. Ryan’s Republicans on the run. It could spur more retirements by Republicans. It could cement the impression that President Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is complete if there is no room for a free-trading, happy warrior like Mr. Ryan.
In short, it is likely to create a real mess.
“His decision to retire today is not helpful in the overall picture of re-election of a House Republican majority,” Thomas M. Reynolds, a former New York congressman who oversaw the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a bit of diplomatic understatement. “Nobody is saying this is over just yet, but there is a very significant change in the dynamic based on his choice to retire.”
The fact that Mr. Ryan will not be speaker in the next Congress is in no way a surprise. His discontent with trying to manage the unmanageable House Republican Conference was well known around Washington, and the abrasive Trumpian style left him cold.
It was fully expected that if Republicans lost the majority in November, he would be gone. And if they held the majority by a thin margin, it still might have been impossible for Mr. Ryan to return as speaker given his role in pushing through bills unpopular with conservatives, such as the recent $1.3 trillion spending package.
The surprise was that he would go public now. Conventional thinking in such cases says the speaker should plunge ahead to remain credible as a fund-raising magnet and to avoid showing any weakness or loss of confidence in the face of a looming electoral backlash — see J. Dennis Hastert, Republican speaker, 2006.
Mr. Ryan acknowledged that the way he was doing things was not the way things are usually done.
“Some of you wonder why I just can’t do the normal politician thing, which is to run and then retire after the election,” Mr. Ryan said. “That is what I’m told is the politically shrewd thing to do. I considered that. But just as my conscience is what got me to take this job in the first place, my conscience could not handle going out that way.” Mr. Ryan said he pledged to serve his constituents honestly, “and for me to ask them to vote to re-elect me, knowing that I wasn’t going to stay, is not being honest.”
Mr. Ryan’s constituents, however, are not the only ones potentially being spared. His choice to leave the House voluntarily at 48 gives him a chance to limit his culpability for a potential loss of the majority or face its consequences, possibly leaving him viable for a future political run.
“It gives him a chance to spend time with his kids, make some money, and then he will be in his mid-50s and can run for president, if that’s what he wants to do,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York.
Whether that is what he wants to do is unknown at the moment. During his remarks to the news media, the speaker said he intended to keep pursuing policy ideas that he favored, such as reshaping big social programs.
In listing the “two greatest honors” of his life, he mentioned being elected as speaker and serving as a husband and father. His run for vice president on the national Republican ticket in 2012 never came up. Instead, there was talk around Washington of Mr. Ryan leading some kind of major Washington advocacy group or think tank. He later told CNN that he had no intention of running for the White House.
Should he enter national politics again, Mr. Ryan’s legacy in the House will no doubt be an issue. He was a champion of fiscal responsibility who will be leaving behind huge deficits piling up under full Republican control of Congress and the White House. He pushed through a long-sought tax overhaul that he celebrated again Wednesday. But one of his chief goals — simplification of the tax code by reducing an array of deductions — was watered down in the final negotiations as Republicans hunted for votes for passage.
The explosion in red ink has become such a political albatross that House Republicans set a vote for Thursday on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution in an attempt to demonstrate that they are serious about fiscal discipline despite their recent actions. The measure was widely ridiculed in Washington.
Mr. Ryan acknowledged his disappointment at failing to get the federal fiscal house in order, but he took some solace in the fact that he had at least “normalized” the idea of trying to rein in spending on politically charged programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. Ryan’s desire to spend more time with his children is no doubt sincere — he was a teenager when his own father died — and he is known for regularly attending their sporting events in Janesville, Wis.
As for his effect on the midterms, he said he did not believe anyone’s race was “going to hinge on whether Paul Ryan’s speaker or not.” He didn’t blame Mr. Trump for driving him out, and instead credited him for helping Republicans enact tax changes.
But just a few years ago, Mr. Ryan was hailed as the bright future of Republicans. Now he is on his way out, and the future of the House Republicans he is leaving behind is not so bright.
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