Finally, House Speaker Paul Ryan edged President Donald Trump out of the nation’s attention.
The Wisconsin Republican’s astonishing announcement that he would not seek another term rocked Washington in a way that almost nothing Mr. Trump has done, said, threatened or tweeted. That is a high achievement in an age where — coast to coast, continent to continent — the president has been part of almost every conversation, the source of hope and despair, the object of wonder and horror.
Of course Mr. Ryan’s decision was prompted in large measure by Mr. Trump, the planet in the political solar system that has warped the orbit of all the other heavenly bodies. In the Jimmy Carter years, House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. was a major power center. In the Ronald Reagan years, O’Neill and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole retained enormous power and attracted substantial attention. In the Trump years, no one on Capitol Hill — indeed, no one in the White House — has power that even approaches that in a presidency that breaks every rule, shatters every tradition, fractures every customary capital relationship.
For Mr. Ryan, there were few rewards in occupying a job that once carried the title “czar” (as in Czar Reed, House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, who ruled Washington at the end of the 19th century) only to find himself feeling like an apparatchik. It was frustrating to be forced to follow the lead of a libertine when he had the mien of an altar boy at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Janesville, Wis. It was mortifying to watch his profile slide from visionary, which Mr. Ryan owned for a decade in the capital, to victim, a status his facial expression and drooping shoulders constantly revealed.
Speed back to 2012 and recall the reaction when former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the Republican presidential nominee, selected Mr. Ryan as his running mate. By edging out former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and former Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana — steady, accomplished, mature figures with bona fides outside politics such as medicine and industry — Mr. Ryan emerged as the face of the Republican future. When he made his announcement Wednesday it was incontrovertible that his (drawn and fatigued) face made it clear he now was the battered standard-bearer of a distant Republican past.
Only a half dozen years ago Mr. Ryan’s selection as the GOP vice-presidential candidate provided a clear signal of where Mr. Romney, and indeed the Republican Party, was headed. It represented a break from the party’s past and placed it on a trajectory envisioned by former Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, who characterized himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative”: Economic thinking breaking with the turgid GOP past. Emotional appeals breaking with the buttoned-down Republican character. An outreach to minorities to recapture the Lincoln tradition. Support of immigrants and a celebration of their passage to America as an embrace of the nation’s finest values.
But what may be most important is that Mr. Trump displaced Mr. Ryan as the principal architect of revolution in the capital. In that regard, Mr. Trump is the functional equivalent of Lenin, leaving Mr. Ryan in the role of Kerensky, who in any circumstance other than in 1917 Russia would have been the engine of revolt. Today no one regards Mr. Ryan as a revolutionary. The revolutionary sits in the Oval Office.
The Paul Ryan story is a tragedy in multiple dimensions.
The first is personal. No matter how much he talks about remaining part of the national debate, the word “former” will always precede his name. Hillary Clinton vowed to remain part of the national debate, but there is almost no one who has receded as swiftly from a position of influence and leadership than the woman Mr. Trump defeated. Mr. Ryan is yesterday’s cat food — once the source of political nutrition, now the personification of stale ideas.
Then there is the public tragedy. Many conservatives believed Mr. Ryan — intelligent, creative, committed — would be a counterpoint to the president, or at least a checkpoint for the president. Neither happened. Mr. Trump waded into several legislative areas with the grudging and spare advice of the speaker, who has been on Capitol Hill on and off for a quarter-century and a congressman for almost two decades. This never was a partnership — and Mr. Ryan was the repository of resentment from those on the right, and a few on the left, who expected the speaker to speak up.
Finally there is the civic tragedy. While Mr. Ryan was steeped in the conservative philosophical and economic thinking of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, Mr. Trump almost certainly could not describe their views with any authority. Intellectual acuity is no guarantee of capital success — Jimmy Carter is the poster boy for that truth — but serious application to important thought is seldom a disadvantage. Moreover, while the president may have the best political instincts of any chief executive since Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, he lacks the institutional political skills of those men, who cumulatively sat in gubernatorial chairs for almost two decades and had between them six presidential campaigns. They had been governors, not gadflies.
Much has been made of the political effect of the Ryan recision decision. The instant analysis was that it was a symbol of Republican hopelessness months before the midterm congressional elections. In that regard, it is a confirmation of conventional thought rather than an alteration of it. Republicans may still retain a slight advantage as November approaches, but they are clearly on the defensive and in danger of losing their House majority.
The Ryan decision puts even more emphasis, and pressure, on Senate races, which are more complicated, more expensive and more visible than House contests. The GOP majority in the upper chamber is 51-49.
With an unpredictable, unconventional and unusually volatile president in the White House — and with vital issues such as immigration, health care and entitlement overhaul begging for attention — few midterm congressional elections in modern time have loomed as quite so consequential.
Mr. Ryan was expected to — perhaps was born to — deal with all three of those questions, all of which he has examined with unusual depth. Now he is in retreat and nearly in retirement. But he finally has done what his supporters have yearned for. He has captured the nation’s attention, though not necessarily its admiration.