WASHINGTON >> House Speaker Paul Ryan is a fervent advocate of free trade. But since President Donald Trump surprised Republicans by announcing stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, Ryan has been largely silent, leaving it to a press spokeswoman to declare today, “We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war.”
Ryan is also a fierce believer in America as a land of immigrants; at a recent dinner party of supporters, the guests included a so-called “Dreamer,” who was brought to this country illegally as a child. But when she pleaded with him to help Dreamers gain legal status, he said that he sympathized, but that the House would only pass legislation that the president would sign into law, according to one person who was there.
On one contentious issue after another — the investigation of Russian interference in U.S. elections, trade, immigration and gun control — a speaker who rose to prominence as an outspoken, almost brash leader, determined to bring his party along with his vision of governance, has receded. Instead, he wields his gavel gingerly.
“I think Ryan’s expectations had to be dramatically reduced when Trump became president,” said Peter Wehner, a one-time adviser to former President George W. Bush who is close to the speaker. “I think in a lot of ways he was forced into a defensive posture rather than an offensive posture.”
To supporters like Wehner, Ryan’s approach is pure pragmatism and smart politics. Facing a divided Republican conference and a mercurial president of his party, they say, he has little choice but to curb some of his own instincts, work behind the scenes and steer Trump gently. He also must guide House Republicans into a very difficult midterm election campaign, where his main job is to insure that vulnerable members get re-elected. And those close to Ryan note that, with the exception of trade, he has not had serious policy disagreements with the president.
But Ryan had modeled himself as a different kind of leader, the youthful face of a new brand of conservatism that was to broaden his party’s appeal and move it beyond 1980s-style Reaganism. His 2012 run for vice president lifted his national profile and fortified his standing. So to critics, the leader once described as “the intellectual center of Republicans in the House” has abandoned principles to hang onto a job he ostensibly never wanted.
“I’m tired of saying deep in his heart there is a different Paul Ryan,” said Charles J. Sykes, a conservative commentator and former radio host in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin who for years touted Ryan as a potential presidential candidate.
“I always imagined that there was room for an alternative conservative vision to Trumpism, and Paul Ryan was ideally suited to be that leader of a non-Trumpist conservative Republican Party, but he’s chosen not to assume that role,” Sykes said. “It’s very disappointing to see he’s become so comfortable as an ally and an enabler of Trump.”
For Democrats, the speaker’s deference to Trump is the stuff of ridicule — and a constitutional dereliction of duty by the man three steps from the presidency.
“Can you imagine Tip O’Neill or Sam Rayburn or any of the portraits in this gallery saying, ‘I don’t know whether I can be for that, I’ve got to go down the street and ask permission of the president’?” asked Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., referring to previous speakers whose portraits hang just outside the House chamber.
To be sure, Ryan has had some achievements, notably the massive rewrite of the federal tax code, which for the speaker marked the realization of a long-held dream. He pushed a repeal of the Affordable Care Act through the House, only to see it die in the Senate. And he helped negotiate a two-year budget deal that should bring some peace to Washington even as it balloons federal spending.
“Speaker Ryan has taken on all the challenges of the modern speakership and deftly kept the conference united while advancing an historic conservative agenda,” said Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong. She cited in particular the tax code rewrite and the budget deal’s provisions for “the rebuilding of our depleted military.”
Now 48, Ryan became the youngest speaker since 1869 when he was elected to the post in the fall of 2015, replacing John A. Boehner, who was effectively pushed out by conservatives in his unruly conference. Ryan told his colleagues then that he would accept the speakership only if all factions would unite behind him.
To a certain extent, he has succeeded.
But in the name of unity, he has governed with a light hand. Last month, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee confronted Ryan after they concluded that the House Intelligence Committee had leaked a senator’s private texts — a serious breach of protocol. Although the senators raised concerns about the direction of the committee under its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, Ryan apparently chose not to intervene.
“The speaker heard the senators on their concerns and encouraged them to take them up directly with their counterparts,” said his spokeswoman, Strong.
If Ryan is known for one quality, House Republicans say, it is his willingness to listen. Members of his conference view him as “inclusive and fair,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
But in a chamber where 218 votes are required to pass legislation, Ryan still faces the same fundamental problem as his predecessor: He has difficulty in bringing his fractious conference together. That means he must watch his step.
But there are consequences to Ryan’s low-key style. Big issues like immigration are languishing with no resolution in sight. Causes that were once Ryan’s signature fights — an exploding budget deficit, soaring Medicare and Social Security spending and an entrenched welfare state — are on nobody’s must-do list. Even Boehner, never viewed as a policymaking powerhouse, at least tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” with the White House that was to slow entitlement spending, cut other parts of the government and raise revenues to balance the budget.
To Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., and a combat veteran who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, Ryan’s approach is not good enough.
“If we believe that tax reform is a do-or-die issue that we have to get done but we can’t say that protecting our kids is that same kind of issue, then that’s not leadership,” said Mast, who backed an assault weapons ban after the bloodshed in Parkland.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have put Ryan on notice that he does not have free rein. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was instrumental in the ouster of Boehner, and he suggested a misstep on immigration in particular could cost Ryan his job.
“I can say that it is a defining moment for this speaker,” Meadows said then. “If he gets it wrong, it will have consequences for him.”