John Boehner’s Zip-a-dee-doo-dah exit as Speaker of the House of Representatives has triggered a remarkable and chaotic process among House Republicans. It quickly became apparent that there was no obvious successor who was capable of leading, and who could command the overwhelming support of the entire GOP Caucus.
Out of that chaos, attention began to focus on Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, and a man who had never aspired to a House leadership position and who said he did not want to be Speaker.
Ryan is a man of substance, a policy wonk, a Republican who, unlike virtually all of the rest of the 246 Republicans in the House, understands that in order to govern, the GOP must demonstrate to the American people that it has workable alternatives to the programs and policies put forth by President Obama and the Democrats. Just voting to repeal Obamacare 50+ times doesn’t cut it.
As the former Chair of the House Budget Committee and the current Chair of Ways and Means, Ryan has been perfectly positioned to offer legislation to address big issues like the debt and the deficit, health care, immigration reform and comprehensive tax reform.
But the pressure on Ryan to fill the Speaker void quickly became irresistible. It was at that point Ryan set forth his conditions. But Ryan blundered badly, sold himself short, and has set the stage for his own demise as Speaker.
He did not take full advantage of the position of strength he occupied as the one person virtually all House members were willing to rally around as the new Speaker. As such, he should have insisted upon a set of conditions that would have brought order out of the chaos among House Republicans. He could have turned the tables on the House Freedom Caucus by saying to them from now on it will be my way or the highway, not yours.
Here’s how Ryan blew it. He first insisted on the support of all three of the caucuses that make up the House Republicans. But then he backtracked when some members of the hysterical Freedom Caucus would not support him. The message his backtracking sent will be lethal going forward. It tells the Freedom Caucus that they will be able to jerk him around just as they jerked John Boehner’s chain whenever they wished.
Then Ryan said he would support the continued use of the Hastert Rule, the mechanism that the radicals in the Freedom Caucus have used to stymie the House legislatively and prevent legislative accommodation with House Democrats, the Senate and the president. Ryan should have reserved the right to abandon the slavish use of the Hastert Rule.
Ryan should have insisted that both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise be replaced with fresh blood of Ryan’s choosing. He didn’t, and he will regret it.
Finally, Ryan agreed to give up the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee. He should have retained that post so that he could continue to shape vital legislation, and so that he had an avenue of retreat if being Speaker went south.
Had Ryan insisted on these conditions, a new and better day would have dawned in the House or, failing that, Ryan could have walked away from a rendezvous with oblivion.
Instead Ryan has trapped himself. Unwittingly, he has become Don Quixote, The Man Of La Mancha. He dreams the impossible dream; he fights the unbeatable foe; he reaches for the unreachable star; and he cannot right the unrightable wrong.
Goldman worked on Capitol Hill and at the National Institutes of Health. He has retired to Flat Rock and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.