WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — In any democracy with a remote sense of political accountability, House Speaker Paul Ryan would have had to resign after his health-care reform debacle last week.
The fact that he did not step down is not the first sign we’ve had that our particular democracy is profoundly deficient in accountability.
But it is a fairly sure bet that the political incompetence, bad judgment and arrogance he displayed in mismanaging that legislative effort will hobble attempts to get anything done in Washington going forward.
Ryan — whom Paul Krugman correctly labeled “flimflam” man back when the Wisconsin congressman was just a lowly backbencher on the make — is now damaged beyond repair as leader of the House.
As the principal author, chief promoter and top House official behind the disastrous American Health Care Act, he has zero credibility with his own party, with the administration, and — for what it’s worth — with the public.
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Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro — often seen as a reliable proxy for President Donald Trump — called for Ryan to go the day after he was forced to pull the legislation in a program that Trump himself, in a “coincidental” tweet, urged people to watch.
“Paul Ryan needs to step down as speaker of the House,” Pirro solemnly intoned. “The reason? He failed to deliver the votes on his health-care bill. The one trumpeted to repeal and replace Obamacare. The one that he had seven years to work on. The one he hid under lock and key in the basement of Congress. The one that had to be pulled to prevent the embarrassment of not having enough votes to pass.”
Ryan should not be too encouraged by Trump’s kind words on Friday just after the bill was pulled, because there were similar reassurances about short-lived National Security Adviser Mike Flynn before he was sent packing.
Trump of course cannot fire Ryan the way he fired Flynn, but he could encourage restive elements in the party conference to agitate for his removal.
The Beltway tea leaves offered some guidance: The anti-Trump Politico assured us on Saturday that Ryan “isn’t going anywhere,” while the pro-Trump Breitbart News reported that rumors are flying about possible replacements.
Among those named by Breitbart as possible contenders for the speaker post were House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — who was originally tapped to succeed John Boehner in 2015 before impolitic remarks about the real purpose of the Benghazi probe — and New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who was among the first moderates to revolt against the health-care bill.
Whether Ryan manages to hold on or not, the health-care debacle unmasked him as lacking both the intellectual and political heft to ride herd on a divided Republican Party in Congress. It may be that nobody can bridge the entrenched ideological divide in the party, but Ryan had his shot and failed.
At the press conference Friday after the vote was canceled, Ryan, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann wrote, “looked and sounded like a hangdog high school football coach spilling out a few defeated platitudes after watching his team get ground into the turf.”
But the debacle was more than just a narrow loss under the Friday night lights. “Its demise is an indictment of Paul Ryan that should shatter what’s left of his myth as competent policy thinker or political leader,” Weissmann wrote. “Aside from the occasional PowerPoint, it’s really not clear what the man is good for.”
The health-care debacle alone should be enough to stir the Republican conference to action. Ryan’s demonstrated incompetence should be enough for Trump to drop his support of the speaker.
But the clincher for Trump should be that he and Ryan have sharply different views on policy. Ryan continues to champion a corporatist, Ayn Randian social Darwinism that would throw the middle class to the dogs, while Trump campaigned on restoring prosperity to the middle class and won the presidency on that pledge.
Ryancare as it stood, even before concessions to the virtually sociopathic Freedom Caucus, failed to meet the promises Trump had made about replacing Obamacare.
Now, as Congress digs itself out of the health-care rubble and moves on to tax reform, we are told that Ryan’s plan for taxes provides no relief for the middle class and even raises taxes for some, while Trump wants to cut taxes across the board.
It is clear by now that Trump can’t be bothered with the details of policy, but if he wants anything close to what he talked about in the campaign he has to stop letting Ryan fill in those details.
Meanwhile, the person Trump seems inclined to rely on for advice on details, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has proven himself so far to be little more than a dilettante, taking off for a family skiing holiday just as the health-care reform moved into its crunch time in Congress.
If Trump wants to succeed in fulfilling his campaign pledges and keep the supporters he won in 2016, he needs to sideline Paul Ryan in one fashion or another and find someone —a new chief of staff? — who can bring together moderate Republicans and Democrats to get some legislation passed.