What's Next for the House GOP after Speaker Ryan Retires?
Just when you thought Washington couldn’t get any more chaotic…
Amidst political headwinds for his party in the upcoming mid-term elections this November, a tumultuous relationship with the White House, and deep divisions within the ranks of his Republican House Conference, the 54th Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan (R-WI), announced earlier today that he will not seek re-election this November. Presuming Ryan remains in Congress and in his job for the remainder of the current Congressional session, as he said today he intends to, he will have served as the leader of the House for just more than 1,160 days – the shortest tenured Speaker of the House since Jim Wright (D-TX) left the office following an ethics investigation in 1989. (In case you’re wondering, the shortest-tenured Speaker in U.S. history was Theodore Pomeroy, a member of the Whig Party from New York, who was elected Speaker by his colleagues as a sign of respect on March 3, 1869 and served for less than 24 hours.) Here’s how Ryan matches up to all of his 53 predecessors:
Historical context, though interesting, is not the most pressing question on politicos’ minds today. Those of us who work in politics are instead all asking the same question: what does Speaker Ryan’s retirement really mean?
Several pundits have taken to the airwaves and the blogosphere since the news broke this morning to argue that Ryan’s retirement amounts, in essence, to capitulation that the GOP is likely to lose the House in November. Though the public polling trends unquestionably will have played a significant role in Ryan’s calculus – Democrats maintain a seven-point advantage over Republicans nationally on generic Congressional ballot and have won several elections recently in states and districts that have historically been solidly red – this analysis is incomplete. In truth, like Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) before him, Ryan’s position with the rightmost flank of the Republican Party has threatened his ability to work must-pass legislation through the House multiple times since he ascended to the speakership in 2015. The Freedom Caucus’ growing mistrust of Ryan has grown of late to a level previously unseen. These fiercely conservative Republicans, who represent solidly Republican districts, are not concerned with their Democratic opponents in the general election; they are focused instead on fending off fellow Republicans who will challenge them in the GOP primaries. In these bright-red districts, Freedom Caucus members who have repeatedly campaigned on fiscal responsibility have had to distance themselves from their party leaders, whose policies the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined will add $1 trillion to the federal deficit in 2018. Ryan’s job would have been nearly impossible even if the GOP had held on the their House majority through the mid-term elections. Faced with a smaller caucus – and thus a smaller majority – he would have been continually required to try to thread a political needle to enact even the most straightforward legislation.
Which begs the obvious questions: who’s next in line, and won’t they face the same dilemma?
Though palace intrigue is the oldest pastime in Washington, it is far too soon to be able to predict who will succeed Ryan as the leader of the House Republicans. There are simply too many variables. Will the election to succeed Ryan be held before or after the mid-terms? If before, the House GOP are likelier to elevate one of Ryan’s deputies who will largely stay the course. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who has built a strong personal relationship with President Trump, would seem to have the edge in this scenario. But if the vote is held after the mid-terms, we could see a very different result. Suppose the Republicans lose the House. The odds of the rank-and-file pushing to place “new blood” in leadership would increase exponentially. And, because in this scenario quite a few moderate Republicans will have lost their races to their Democratic opponents, the House Republican Conference would be significantly more conservative and thus more likely to tap a peer with credibility among that wing of the party. In this scenario, Ryan’s successor becomes the Minority Leader of the House rather than the Speaker.
In many ways, the most difficult scenario for the GOP is if the election to replace Ryan takes place after the mid-terms and the GOP holds on to their majority. With a smaller, more conservative majority, it’s unclear whether McCarthy – or any incumbent member of GOP leadership, for that matter – would have enough support within the House Republican Conference to be elevated to Speaker. The situation would be eerily similar to the circumstances in which Ryan became Speaker two-and-a-half years ago: with no candidate in the race for the job who could secure the support of moderates and conservatives alike, Ryan, who had been the party’s nominee for Vice President just a few years earlier and was known entity nationally, was drafted unwillingly into the role. Except this time around, there would be no obvious consensus candidate that could emerge in the event of a stalemate.
At a minimum, Speaker Ryan’s decision to retire certainly adds to the narrative that the Republican Party is in the midst of transitioning from the party of Reagan, Romney and now Ryan to the party of Trump. We won’t know whether that transition will be fully complete until House Republicans decide who their next leader will be.