News that House Speaker Paul Ryan will retire from Congress and his powerful role as speaker is a stunning development for Republicans who looked to him as one of their top institutional leaders.
He's one of the few politicians who seems able to maneuver institutional Washington without completely alienating the party's base. And despite his protestations that it does not, his decision must have something to do with the anticipated Republican clobbering this fall.
The ramifications of Ryan's departure are going to be widespread. From the fight to replace his individual seat to the fight to fill his role as speaker, Ryan won't exactly be a captain going down with the ship.
Is it maddening to deal with a fractured caucus and a mercurial president? Must be! Could it help a future presidential run to get out now and come back later? Sure!
For the record, Ryan said repeatedly that the main reason he's leaving is because he wants to spend more time with his kids before they grow up.
He also acknowledged that most speakers don't just leave the office. Most speakers spend years plotting a path to claw their way into the role, but Ryan didn't really want it when party members pressured him in 2015 in an effort to unite the party.
Here's a look at some of the recent ways other speakers have left:
John Boehner got out before a mutiny
Boehner, a Republican, took the gavel from Democrat Nancy Pelosi after the 2010 tea party election that gave Republicans control of the House. His entire speakership was spent fighting President Barack Obama on the left and conservatives in the party on the right. His tenure was perhaps most notable for his effort with Obama to strike a grand bargain on government spending. That wasn't to be, in large part because of the intransigence of some of those tea party members. He left as challenges from other Republicans to his leadership were starting to gain steam and threatened to force him to seek help from Democrats to remain speaker.
Nancy Pelosi lost her majority but stayed in Congress
The remarkable thing about Ryan is that he is a relatively young man giving up a very powerful position.
Contrast Ryan's decision with Pelosi, the first woman to be speaker and still the House Democratic leader. She was speaker for four years, from 2007 through 2011, and has been trying to get her way back to the post in the seven years since. She might see that dream realized in 2019 if Democrats can win the House majority in November. What sets Pelosi apart is that she did not leave Congress after losing the majority. Her historical antecedent is Sam Rayburn, the Texas Democrat who was speaker and lost power in the 1940s and 1950s. He got it back twice, each time after one election. If Pelosi can get power back, it'll have taken her four elections.
Dennis Hastert lost the majority and resigned from Congress a year later and is now totally disgraced
Hastert's rise from wrestling coach to House speaker was an only-in-America kind of story that turned out to be too good to be true. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration helped Democrats roar into the majority after the 2006 election. Hastert, however, stayed in the speaker's office through the loss. He handed control of the GOP in the House over to Boehner after losing the majority, and resigned from his congressional seat in late 2007. A Democrat won the special election to replace him. It was later learned that Hastert had paid hush money to people he had allegedly abused as young boys during his coaching career. He served 13 months in federal prison for the hush money. The alleged sexual abuse was not prosecuted due to the statute of limitations having lapsed.
Newt Gingrich stepped "in the face of a brewing rebellion"
Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, helped Republicans take control of the House for the first time in decades during the Clinton administration in the '90s. But he was an abrasive and controversial party leader and there were leadership coup attempts. He stepped down as speaker and resigned from Congress after a disappointing midterm election in 1998 and just as Republicans' impeachment effort was gearing up. The congressman who ousted Gingrich, Bob Livingston, didn't get to the speakership himself; he resigned during the impeachment effort because of past sexual behavior and affairs.
Tom Foley lost his seat and his speakership
Democrat Tom Foley, from Washington State, has the dubious distinction of being that rare speaker of the House to lose his bid for re-election to Congress. It was the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994 and Foley did not survive. Neither did the Democratic majority. While Ryan's district leans Republican, his re-election in the fall may not have been assured if there is a Democratic wave.
Jim Wright had ethics issues, tried to head off "mindless cannibalism"
Wright, a Texas Democrat, resigned his post as speaker after a year-long ethics ordeal and investigation into whether he skirted ethics rules to sell a book. He denied any wrongdoing. It was spearheaded by none other than Gingrich and marked, according to The Washington Post in its 2015 obituary for Wright, was a pivotal moment "in the House's transformation from a proudly collegial institution to one mired in partisan rancor." He resigned as speaker in 1989 to protect the House from "mindless cannibalism" and partisanship. Didn't really work.
Tip O'Neill went out on his own terms
We're getting pretty far afield of recent history with O'Neill, the Massachusetts Democrat who was Ronald Reagan's friendly counterweight during his speakership from 1977 thru 1987. Ryan tried to say Wednesday he was going out like Tip O'Neill, "on his own terms." O'Neill was in his 70s when he left Congress. Ryan is in his 40s. But there is this: O'Neill turned into a successful author and pitch man during his post-House years. Surely this isn't the last we'll be seeing of Paul Ryan.
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