Last week, Paul Ryan announced he would be stepping down as Speaker at the end of his term. Speculation has been rampant about what this means for the midterms and who will succeed him (another Republican, Nancy Pelosi or another Democrat). Hot on Ryan’s heels was the surprise announcement Charlie Dent in Pennsylvania was retiring in weeks. He had already announced he would not run for reelection but the news he would resign in weeks was a stunner.
Along with Ryan and Dent, almost 40 other Republican Congressional members are retiring. Only 17 Democrats can say the same. While massive retirements do not always equal a loss for the party they do make it harder for the incumbent party to defend the now open seats. Additionally, it means challengers seeking to keep the seat in the incumbent party’s hands must work harder to earn the cash the incumbent had.
Considering Trump’s style contrasts with a moderate personality like Dent it is easy to see why he is personally retiring. But, beyond Dent, it also is easy to see why Trump’s brand of conservatism is driving some Republicans to retirement.
Just keep in mind where many of the current crop of Republicans came from and what they ran on. You have the old guard Republicans who ran in the 80’s and 90’s on a platform of being anti-Democratic, the 1994 Gingrich Revolution wing that ran on the Contract with America and the 2010 Tea Party crop who ran on fiscal discipline and big government.
Now, consider what Trump ran on. Trump ran on many policies anathema to all of these groups. He ran on making government bigger and spending more money (infrastructure), he ran as a dove (I hate the Iraq War) and he made social conservatives twist into contortions to justify their support for him. Trump offers something for virtually every kind of Congressional member to hate.
The base loves him. Despite Trump failing to repeal the ACA, signing a $1.3 trillion omnibus and implementing tariffs his approval among the rank and file is close to 90 percent. Even Republicans who do not like the President have rallied to his side in the face of strong opposition. Republican voters have sidelined the ideology of the party to vote for their man. It is easier for voters to do this than elected officials and many Republicans are leaving because of it.
It was not that long ago that Ryan’s call for entitlement reform, shrinking the government and reining in massive deficits was something the GOP rallied around. It was these ideals the party believed allowed them to win so many elections under Obama. But Trump’s victory put truth to the lie this was ever true. Rather, Ryan led a party that benefited from a cultural backlash to Obama. Trump, recognizing this, instead of running on economic issues instead won an election on cultural issues the GOP under Ryan.
Indeed, Trump ran on not touching entitlements and the GOP ate it up. On other issues Trump campaigned on and has behaved as a traditional Republican. Still, arguing for conservative justices is a far cry from also embracing deficit reduction and free trade.
While Ryan has raised millions for his party and will raise millions more before he retires the party largely considers they owe him nothing. Ryan has been unable to stave off conservative revolts like his predecessor, John Boehner, could not. He has been dogged by a Caucus that despite having a majority does not behave like it. Further, the chaos in the White House seems to have only emboldened the hard right wing of the Caucus and made governing a choice of policies able to win over some Democrats and some Republicans or a government shutdown.
With Trump in the White House, more Republicans running on his agenda and GOP voters sucking up what is bad about Trump, sidelining some beliefs to support their guy the truth is now clear to Ryan and other Republicans. It is now Trump’s party. Ryan as Speaker always had the biggest pulpit for his party until Trump won. Once Trump attained the White House he became the voice for his party. And while Ryan scored a big win, tax reform, and got to see a new conservative judge elected to the Supreme Court, none of it is enough to overshadow the party Ryan joined in the 90’s and led for the last two years is now no longer his own. It is Trump’s. For better or worse.