Many of us who watch Congressman Paul Ryan up close are always amazed at how successfully he’s convinced so many fans in the Washington press corps to portray him as a sincere, honestly motivated, conservative choir boy instead of simply another sleazy, unscrupulous, right-wing politician.
A perfect example was the media reaction to the story Ryan and his allies planted in Politico telegraphing that the House speaker may be on the verge of ending his congressional career and declining to run for re-election next year. That trial balloon worked like a charm.
Politico’s exclusive was strongly sourced. Reporters talked to three dozen people close to Ryan including aides, fellow lawmakers, lobbyists and outside advisers. Many knew about Ryan’s discussions with his inner circle and “kitchen cabinet” of close advisers about possibly serving through next November and retiring ahead of the next Congress.
For days, competing media dismissed the story as mere rumor based on a misleading, one-word non-denial from Ryan to a reporter’s shouted question about whether Ryan was leaving his job “anytime soon.” Ryan replied “No” and immediately left the room. Who’s to say whether a year from now is “soon” in Republican House speaker years?
Ryan’s political dancing became even more obvious in a year-end interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert. Gilbert repeatedly asked whether Ryan would be on the ballot in 2018 every way a reporter possibly could and Ryan repeatedly refused to answer. Ryan’s evasions were relentless: “That’s a down the road thing.” “I am not thinking about that right now.” “I’ll address the future in the future.” “Let’s leave it at that.”
By leaking a story and then refusing to talk about it, Ryan avoids becoming a lame duck and, so far at least, he’s suddenly receiving glowing reviews from media sycophants gushing over passage of that massive Trump Family and Wealthy Friends Tax Cut as the crowning achievement of Ryan’s political career.
Like most other reporting about Ryan’s career, there’s another far-less flattering interpretation of Ryan ducking out of next year’s midterms. Ryan and Donald Trump just gleefully high-fived over passing an enormous tax cut that blatantly stuffs the already-bulging pockets of the richest people on Earth after fraudulently promising it would benefit the middle class.
The middle class wasn’t fooled. Less than a third of voters actually approve of those massive tax cuts for the super wealthy. Ryan’s support for blowing a $1.5 trillion hole in the national deficit to slash taxes for millionaires and billionaires was particularly embarrassing since Ryan had built his entire political career around warning that deficit spending was destroying America.
The reason Republicans were so desperate to pass even a politically unpopular tax giveaway to the rich is they were desperate to pass anything. If they hadn’t been able to pass bad tax legislation, they wouldn’t have anything at all to show for Trump’s tumultuous first year in office with Republicans in total control of the government.
Signs already were pointing to what Republican strategists feared could be a bloodbath for the party in next year’s midterms. Democrats energized by almost-daily Trump outrages swept statewide elections in Virginia, New Jersey and, good lord, even ruby-red Alabama in what Democrats hope is a wave building into a tsunami.
Ryan reportedly already has warned party leaders House Republicans might start announcing their retirements rather than risking defeat. He neglected to mention he might be one of them.
There’s another obvious reason Ryan might want to get out while the gettin’s good and it has nothing to do with quitting politics. Just the opposite. That silly anti-Trump, pro-Trump jitterbug Ryan kept performing during the campaign was designed to distance Ryan far enough from Trump to be the next presidential candidate after the embarrassing, unqualified Trump went down in flames. Something even worse happened for Republicans. Trump got elected.
With the possibility of criminal charges in the coming year involving Trump family members and associates colluding with Russians in an enemy attack on American democracy, any Republican who wants to run for president in the future (and vice presidential candidates like Ryan always do) will need to separate themselves from Trump permanently and lie low for a while.
Ryan would have difficulty doing that if he continues as speaker. The House is the body that would be expected to act if special counsel Robert Mueller finds Trump has committed impeachable offenses or if Trump commits some outrage to prevent that from happening such as firing Mueller or pardoning corrupt members of his family and campaign.
But there’s no guarantee even temporarily retiring from politics will protect Ryan from the taint of Trump. After all, Democrats still have pictures of all those rich, white, Republican politicians joyfully swarming around Trump and Ryan to celebrate those enormous tax cuts they just voted for themselves and their wealthy political donors.
Joel McNally writes a regular column for The Capital Times.
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