The walls are closing in.

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Paul Ryan Among the Ruins

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Paul Ryan is a sunny politician in a party devoted to spreading gloom. But as Republicans slouch toward Cleveland, even he must be having dark moments.

As the highest-ranking official in his party, he will oversee the Republican National Convention that is poised to nominate Donald Trump -- a role he could have avoided, and almost did. His predecessor as speaker, John Boehner, helped deliver a huge Republican majority in the House. Yet the party's conference was so ideologically unhinged and practically dysfunctional that it rewarded Boehner for this historic achievement by forcing him into retirement.

After a protracted show of ambivalence about replacing Boehner, Ryan opted to succeed him last October. "We will not duck the tough issues," Ryan said after being sworn in. "We will take them head on." The new motto, Ryan said, would be: "Opportunity for all."

It quickly became clear that Ryan couldn't even get a break for himself. His hopes for an actual budget and a return to "regular order" went nowhere. Under unified Republican leadership, Congress can't even organize itself to fund emergency measures to contain the Zika virus, whose first wave of victims will surely include Republican families in Republican districts across the Republican South. Last week's unruly Democratic sit-in to demand a vote on gun regulation only heightened the sense of chaos.

"Ryan's instinct to refuse the speakership opportunity was correct," said congressional scholar Thomas Mann, via e-mail. "It has been an unmitigated disaster. He has been unable to run the House as he promised (entirely predictable), he has been personally diminished in his relations with Trump (more to follow in Cleveland) and the job will become even worse if Hillary wins and Republicans retain a majority in the House."

There may be a less dire scenario, but not one Republicans will relish. Steve Bell, a former Republican Senate aide who is senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, thinks that a strong Clinton victory could rescue Ryan, enabling him to emulate Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill's response to Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory, which gave Republicans control of the Senate and showed House Democrats that their policies were out of favor and their majority was shaky.

"Until the GOP really loses enough House seats to face a possible Democratic takeover, the far right will be the tail that wags the dog," Bell said, via e-mail. But if Democrats win the White House and the Senate, "the Speaker will have the ability to deal with the President and the Senate and get parts of his agenda done. O’Neill handled the situation masterfully and Ryan could do the same thing. That would elevate him not only as a Speaker, but as the national policy thinker that he is."

Ryan is unlikely to emerge from such a scenario a conservative hero. Because vulnerable House Republicans tend to be more moderate, a shrunken GOP majority will almost certainly include a higher concentration of anti-government zealots who categorically oppose compromise. Yet if Ryan opts to continue the obstructionism favored by the zealots, he risks further damage to a Republican brand that can ill afford it.

Republican strategist Liam Donovan said Ryan fully understood his challenge from the start. But Trump threw a new wrench into the works.

"It's easily the worst gig in Washington and I think he knew that going in," Donovan said, via e-mail. "So does the decision look worse in hindsight as a political calculation or a stepping stone for future ambitions? Certainly, if that was the primary goal. We were still clinging to delusions that Trumpmania might fade away back in October. But having nominated Trump rather than a Ryan-type, it's that much more important to have a competent national figure as Speaker."

Trump, who trafficks in racial demagogy and paranoid politics that Ryan has valiantly opposed, represents a challenge to everything Ryan says he holds dear: the positive, can-do, conservative "opportunity society" ethic that Ryan inherited from Republican Representative Jack Kemp.

"Trump by personality is the antithesis of Jack Kemp and a person who has not a settled thought on any topic," said former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, a Kemp acolyte and Ryan cheerleader, in a telephone interview.

But Trump is the Republican standard-bearer because Republican voters thrilled to his ugly personal attacks and fact-free nostalgia -- not to Ryan's vision of a nation of strivers happily pulling themselves up, using strands of a shredded social safety net for bootstraps.

Ryan has been "unable to elevate himself above the greater ideological collapse of the Republican Party," said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, in a telephone interview.

Some Democrats, presuming a Trump loss, suggest Ryan will be buried in the rubble. Trump's long, dark shadow would not just disappear or be easily incorporated into a positive vision. His legion of GOP followers can't be wished away. 

Still, Ryan is arguably the most skillful and appealing politician in his party. He's also young enough to adapt outdated and unpopular ideas -- which is to say, his own -- into a program better suited to his time and place. If Ryan can't do it, who will?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net