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Outsiders vs. Insiders: Ryan’s exit equals big chance for conservatives to break GOP leaders

As might be expected, when Speaker Paul Ryan announced his intention to leave Congress last week many political observers speculated it was due to his reportedly rocky relationship with President Donald Trump.

After all, it’s no secret Ryan wasn’t thrilled about Trump leading the Republican Party from the beginning. All throughout the 2016 GOP presidential primaries – and even into the fall general election campaign – Ryan Mark Meadowsopenly wavered between an “I’ll support the party nominee” stance and a “we’ll see what happens” position. Even Ryan’s formal endorsement (to his hometown newspaper) was half-hearted, something akin to “I gotta do this, let’s get it over with.”

It’s almost as though Ryan was trying to convey a “we’re stuck with him” mindset .

In other words, the speaker was neither here nor there. As Mitt Romney’s running mate and (supposedly) reluctant head of the Republicans’ House contingent for the past three years, the Wisconsin establishmentarian constantly seemed torn between his instinctive longings to perpetuate the swamp and a desire to break free in Trump-mold so as to shatter the status quo. Ryan is known for plugging entitlement reform and budget sanity even if his actions as Speaker never really lived up to it.

Now folks claim Ryan’s leaving because the political situation didn’t live up to his expectations. W. James Antle III of the Washington Examiner wrote last week, “Long before he became speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan had a simple dream: to play Jack Kemp to a future Republican president’s Ronald Reagan. In a cruel twist of fate, Ryan instead had to reprise Kemp’s role with President Trump.

“Kemp, Ryan’s idol, helped craft the tax cut that eventually became the centerpiece of Reagan’s supply-side economic agenda. From his early years representing a Wisconsin swing district in Congress, Ryan was unveiling sweeping budget and reform plans he hoped would someday become law.

“Trump, for the most part, never embraced Ryan’s vision. The two have worked together better than ever seemed possible since the House speaker held out on endorsing Trump for president, even after his nomination was inevitable, or as Ryan waffled on his Trump support after the vulgar ‘Access Hollywood’ tape leaked. But Trump has not become a convert on entitlement reform.”

Nor did anyone truly expect the president to toss out his entire MAGA agenda to embrace an issue that was not only not part of his campaign proposals, it would seem to fly in the face of everything Trump promised to seniors who depend on Medicare and Social Security.

The subject was posed numerous times during presidential debates and Trump consistently maintained that entitlements would be off the table if he won the White House. The wisdom of such a vow is a discussion for another time, but Trump either saw entitlements as the political “third rail” they’ve always been -- or he truly believes the system can sustain the programs’ exponential growth no matter how the actuarial tables indicate otherwise.

It was just one of many curiosities in Trump’s unparalleled path to the presidency, but the rest is history.

As for Ryan, somewhere along the line he morphed into the face of Republican fiscal conservatism, probably due to his bold introduction of the “Roadmap For America’s Future” (announced in May of 2008) and then his “Roadmap For America’s Future 2.0” (announced in January of 2010). Both plans established the goal of restructuring the monstrous federal entitlement programs that are currently devouring the federal budget, namely Health Care costs (would be accomplished through reforming the tax code), Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security.

Ryan’s proposals came with his own version of tax reform, balanced on three planks: First, individual taxpayers would be given a choice: to continue to pay taxes under the current system, or under a highly simplified code – with just two rates and virtually no special tax deductions, credits, or exclusions; second, Ryan’s proposal eliminated the AMT, taxes on capital gains and dividends, and got rid of the death tax; lastly, Ryan’s “Roadmap” would have repealed the corporate income tax and replaced it with a border-adjustable business consumption tax of 8.5% – a very competitive international rate.

Somewhat predictably Ryan’s wonky ideas were met with sneers, cynicism and rejection from a Washington establishment (at the time) that was in no mood to ditch the special interest-dominated tax code in favor of something new that might accomplish Jack Kemp-ian type economic growth. I always felt the media treated Ryan rather condescendingly – you know, as the good-natured Badger State boy with a cartoonish face and ears that stick out.

They lampooned Ryan as a double of TV’s Eddie Munster (of “The Munsters” fame), clearly intending to not only detract from Ryan’s intellectual capacity but also depict him as a freak.

Ryan isn’t a freak but he’s never realized his potential as the “reformer” conservatives earnestly hoped for. I harken back to August of 2012 when Mitt Romney introduced Ryan as his running mate, a move largely seen as a goodwill gesture to conservatives wary of Romney as a principles-challenged elitist who would say anything to get elected.

Ryan dutifully fulfilled his role as VP candidate but there was always something missing – namely a hard-shelled defense of limited government principles conservatives were seeking from a new Republican administration. Where was the Ryan of “Roadmap” fame? Instead Ryan appeared to run tag-team to Romney. Even Ryan’s one-on-one vice presidential debate with “Uncle Joe” Biden was a crushing disappointment for conservatives; Biden’s more obvious lies largely went unchallenged – remember the “malarkey” comment?

Ryan “reluctantly” agreed to assume the Speaker’s office in 2015 after conservatives forced John Boehner to do his chain smoking and Merlot chugging back home in Ohio. As the “consensus” choice Ryan promised to return the House to regular order in the budgetary process; it didn’t happen.

With Ryan now following on Boehner’s vaper trail back to the Midwest conservatives have a golden opportunity to fill the House GOP leadership slots with true believers who will actually fight for many of the things Ryan purportedly believed in so passionately. Fortunately, it appears the conservative House Freedom Caucus will have a big say in who next walks in Ryan’s shoes.  

Susan Ferrechio and David M. Drucker of the Washington Examiner reported, “Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the influential leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is poised to play a major role in deciding the next speaker if House Republicans maintain the majority in November.

“Meadows holds considerable influence over a faction of more than three dozen lawmakers whose votes would be critical to ensuring the election of a Republican speaker, which requires a full House vote. Republicans can't elect the speaker of their choice without a significant portion of the HFC.

“Meadows said members would likely stick together when deciding who next should lead the House GOP. ‘I’m assuming that there's a few of our members that won't vote as a bloc, but I can't imagine a lot of them not voting as a bloc,’ Meadows said Wednesday.”

The Examiner reporters pointed out that if Republicans lose seats later this year as expected (but still retain the majority) any potential Ryan replacement will need the stamp of approval of the Freedom Caucus. That likely means Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would face a severely uphill battle to succeed Ryan. Even baseball diamond shooting survivor Majority Whip Steve Scalise would have difficulties.

A growing group of conservatives are floating the name of Rep. Jim Jordan for the position. Like Boehner, the congressman is from Ohio – but comparisons end there. Jordan is often on the front lines of every battle over conservative proposals in the House, demonstrating a willingness to go to bat for limited government that’s earned him goodwill from conservatives who are dog tired of being lied to and put off by an establishment leadership that all-too-often cares more about what Nancy Pelosi thinks than members of their own caucus.

By all accounts Jordan is considering a run too. Juliegrace Brufke of The Hill reported, “The Washington Post first reported that Jordan – who has a reputation for being a thorn in leadership’s side, once having led the House Freedom Caucus – was interested in the seeking the position.

“While it would be nearly impossible for the Ohio Republican to garner the 218 votes needed to become Speaker, he could play a pivotal role in who ultimately wins the race should he decide to run. If Jordan opts to throw his hat into the ring, it could throw a curveball into the race, potentially drawing conservative votes away from the probable frontrunners.

“With the House Freedom Caucus holding a block of 25 to 30 votes, it’s possible the powerful conservative group could use the opportunity to strike a deal for a lower leadership post or better committee positions.”

A deal? Not to be argumentative with Brufke but I disagree that a Jordan speakership would be “nearly impossible” to accomplish. I don’t know the exact numbers but a big chunk of the wishy-washy House Tuesday group is either retiring or facing ouster in Democrat districts this November. Should the “moderate” ranks be thinned out in the House, who will be left to vote?

It should also be recognized very few of the principled conservative House Republicans are listed as potentially vulnerable to the blue “wave” that so many media folks are seeing on the horizon. Should such a “wave” materialize (as of Friday the Real Clear Politics generic ballot showed Democrats +7 but the most recent Quinnipiac poll showed it only at +3), the ones most affected by it won’t be people like Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows.

As has been argued a lot lately, Republicans can help their own midterm electoral cause by using the rest of Ryan’s tenure to actually do something positive – not only to help win people over this November, but also to leave voters with a better taste in their mouths about Trump’s first two years (and hence boost his approval ratings).

What if Ryan suddenly defied the establishment? Philip Wegmann of the Washington Examiner wrote, “[A]fter three years of promises and lots of compromises, Ryan is going to retire. Chances are Republicans will lose the House, and that’s an opportunity. Ryan should become resolute and defend all his old talking points with the remainder of his strength. He should work with the administration to claw back some of the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill through a rescission package. And he should also introduce the dream entitlement reform package, knowing full well it won’t go anywhere.

“Burn bright and be the promised conservative majority.

“None of that will happen. Even if Ryan charged forward, it’s not clear his caucus would follow. Keeping them from each other’s throats has been enough of a challenge already. Ryan, instead, will make an Irish exit and be the quintessential D.C. gentleman. But wouldn’t it be more fun if he was bare knuckled and unafraid in these last seven months?”

Seven months? How about those three years? As the guy who “reluctantly” took the speaker’s job (no one supposedly wanted) Ryan had a real chance to tell his party’s big spenders to go pound sand -- or find someone else who could more effectively control the herd if they didn’t like his fiscal discipline.

When Paul Ryan officially leaves Congress people will remember him as the humble Wisconsin boy who always put on a positive face and did his best in the House. Conservatives will remember all the things Ryan didn’t do – and the next speaker had better be prepared to make things right.

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