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US Politics

‘I’m grateful to the president’: Paul Ryan’s final ignominy as he is defeated by the Trump revolution

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision to abruptly throw in the towel, just six months before the US midterm elections, is likely to only further Donald Trump’s control of the Republican Party

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 2:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 10:11pm

As he announced his exit from public life, House Speaker Paul Ryan tried hard to show appreciation for the man who took the Republican Party from his grasp and transformed it into something else. 

“I’m grateful to the president,” Ryan said four times in two minutes, with slight grammatical variations, in a news conference Wednesday at the US Capitol.

He noted that Donald Trump’s 2016 victory gave Republicans the power to cut taxes and increase military spending. 

But the praise did little to remove the shadow Trump casts over the end of Ryan’s career now that he has decided to forego a campaign for re-election. 

The Trump revolution, which Ryan had long resisted, appeared to have claimed another victory, dispatching another occasional critic and reaffirming the president’s growing hold on a shrinking electoral coalition. 

“Speaker Ryan is an embodiment of a particular kind of optimistic, pro-growth, pro-free market inclusive conservatism,” said Michael Steele, a former top adviser to House Speaker John Boehner. “And that is a very different feel and tone of where the party is going under President Trump.”

Ryan’s decision to abruptly throw in the towel, just six months before the midterms, is likely to only further Trump’s control of the party. 

Republicans strategists worry that it will also make it harder for the Republicans to hold onto the House, a prospect that seems less likely after a recent Democratic victory in a special election outside Pittsburgh. 

Not only are donors making clear they are more sceptical of the effort to retain the House, but the sudden departure of Ryan suggests the Republican ideological tent will continue to shrink. 

Including Ryan and Dennis Ross, who also announced his retirement Wednesday, 46 Republicans have retired or said they will not run for re-election, and those ranks are likely to grow further in the coming weeks.

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A former vice-presidential nominee, the highest senior Republican during Trump’s rise and once his party’s ideological standard-bearer, Ryan has spent the last two years resisting, minimising and ultimately conceding to a Trump revolution he could neither contain nor control. 

Ryan’s brand of politics, an uplifting fiscal conservatism rooted in his admiration of his former boss, Jack Kemp, seemed ascendant as recently as 2012, when Mitt Romney chose to add him to the presidential ticket. 

Four years later, as Trump was gaining popularity, Ryan warned the country of the divisive tactics the president continues to employ. 

“Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles,” Ryan said in a March 2016 speech on the state of American politics. 

“We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you.”

But Trump still won, not just the nomination but the White House, with a campaign that cast immigrants as inherently devious snakes and encouraged public displays of anger at protesters and the press. 

The protests Ryan offered rarely had an impact. He denounced Trump’s comments about a federal judge as “racist”, condemned Trump’s approach to trade, defended immigration as “a thing to celebrate” and continued to fight for reductions in entitlement spending long after Trump promised no cuts to Medicare and Social Security. 

As recently as January, Ryan described Trump’s vulgar description of some majority-minority nations as “sh******” countries as “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful”.

But throughout it all, Trump’s power within the party continued to grow, as Ryan’s waned. National polls now show Trump enjoys dominant approval ratings among Republicans, with 86 per cent of party voters now supporting the president in the latest Quinnipiac Poll, a dramatic increase from his position before the 2016 elections. 

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Tributes poured in from fellow Republicans including Trump, who called him “a truly good man.”

“While he will not be seeking re-election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. We are with you Paul!” the president tweeted.

For his part, Ryan maintained that his departure would have no impact on the 2018 landscape. 

“I really don’t think a person’s race for Congress is going to hinge on whether Paul Ryan’s speaker or not,” Ryan said. 

“So I really don’t think it affects it.”

California’s Kevin McCarthy and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise are the likely chief contenders to succeed Ryan.

McCarthy, the House majority leader, is known for being a strong fundraiser. Scalise, the majority whip, is viewed as the more conservative of the two.

The Washington Post, Associated Press. Agence France-Presse