It began back in 2015 with a low rumble, like something buried deep in the Earth had rolled over in its sleep: GOP Rep. Jim Bridenstine, representing Oklahoma’s first district, was retiring at the end of his term. Hardly anything about the announcement was newsworthy outside of Tulsa and Wagoner; maybe one person in ten thousand could pick Jim Bridenstine out of a line-up. As it turns out, he was the leading indicator of an explosive trend. Bridenstine was the first, but will certainly not be the last.
Two years after Bridenstine’s announcement and 15 months into the presidency of Donald Trump, the floodgates have opened: The Republican House members who are either leaving the House after the 2018 midterms or have already left in disgrace include Sam Johnson, Lynn Jenkins, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, John J. Duncan Jr., Dave Reichert, Charlie Dent, Dave Trott, Jeb Hensarling, Lamar Smith, Frank LoBiondo, Ted Poe, Bob Goodlatte, Joe Barton, Bill Shuster, Gregg Harper, Ed Royce, Darrell Issa, Pat Meehan, Rodney Frelinghuysen, Trey Gowdy, Tom Rooney, Ryan Costello, Dennis Ross, Jason Chaffetz, Tim Murphy, Pat Tiberi, Trent Franks, Blake Farenthold, Kristi Noem, James Renacci, Raul Labrador, Steve Pearce, Diane Black, Evan Jenkins, Luke Messer, Todd Rokita, Lou Barletta, Marsha Blackburn, Ron DeSantis, Martha McSally and Kevin Cramer.
Leading the charge toward the exits is none other than Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who confirmed on Wednesday that he is stepping down and leaving office after 2018.
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That is 43 departures, compared to the Democrats’ 19, and the roof has not finished caving in quite yet. As Republican dysfunction and Trumpian mayhem continue to command the day, more departures are certain. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats in order to wrest back control of the House. The Cook Political Report scores 86 seats as being competitive, with 66 of those currently held by Republicans.
For remaining Republicans who still have to row their way to safety in an increasingly perilous election season, Ryan’s sudden departure was a knife thrust under the fifth rib. “It’s just another illustration of the harbinger of things to come,” Terry Sullivan, former campaign strategist for Marco Rubio, told The Hill. “There’s no Republican who’s optimistic about the November elections. If the leader of Republicans in Congress doesn’t want to be there, what is the reason they should be?”
What began two Novembers ago as an all-encompassing Republican victory, a takeover of two branches with a stranglehold on the third, has devolved into a chaotic stampede to avoid the looming and seemingly insurmountable “Blue Wave” to come. “This is the Watergate pattern writ large,” writes Rick Wilson for The Daily Beast. “In 1973, Republicans were screaming that the investigation was nothing but a Fake News Witch Hunt. They lost 49 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1974, two months after Nixon resigned.”
Take a bow, soon-to-be-former-Speaker Ryan. The representatives who believed you to be the party’s economics whiz kid, who elevated you to the Speakership after Boehner bolted, who even went so far as to nominate you to be vice president in 2012, have finally come face to face with the real man behind that aw-shucks smile. The view is not pleasant. Rather than act as the leader of an equal branch of government, Paul Ryan played the part of amiable doormat to the most ridiculous president since Andrew Johnson, and the whole caucus is about to pay a gruesome price for it.
Yes, Ryan helped see the recent massive tax cut into fruition, but this was not some herculean endeavor. Getting Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agree that rich people deserve more money is about as difficult as squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. Ryan’s lifetime quest to shatter the social safety net he once depended upon may not have been fully realized yet, but he helped put enough of a beating on Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security that millions will feel the pain of it for many years to come.
That was always the truly insidious part of this man with the boyish face and a pocketful of debunked economic theories. If you asked him, Ryan’s seeming goodwill would pour out of his doe eyes as he explained that all he wanted was to help people. Trouble is, he never made clear which people those were until the largest transfer of wealth in modern history was completed. Then he left. Mission accomplished.
The GOP is Trump’s party now. Mitch McConnell still rules the Senate, but with an ill electoral wind blowing even in that august chamber, he has little choice but to staple himself to a wildly oscillating wrecker who is so twisted that his own lawyer now exists only as a stack of captured boxes deep inside FBI headquarters. Every GOP election campaign is going to come down to a bunch of petrified Republicans trying to out-Trump each other with the base while hoping Fearless Leader isn’t caught building a dacha on the Volga River.
If you think I exaggerate the circumstances for congressional Republicans, consider this: The current GOP front-runner for Ryan’s seat is an avowed white supremacist named Paul Nehlan. After a peaceful counter-demonstration in Charlottesville was attacked by fascists and Nazis, resulting in the murder of one protester, Nehlan tweeted, “Incredible moment for white people who’ve had it up to here & aren’t going to take it anymore.” This, along with a barrage of racist and anti-Semitic garbage, got Nehlan bounced from Twitter, but despite cries of outrage from the Wisconsin Republican Party, he’s at the top of the list to replace Ryan. Also, Donald Trump likes him. In Republican-world these days, that’s all that seems to count.
One could call this the end of an era, except that Paul Ryan has only been Speaker for about as long as it takes to boil an egg. His years in office stand as a towering example of how far one can go in Republican politics if you cling relentlessly to the trickle-down theory while gnawing at the base of Medicare like a beaver felling an oak. A part of me will always wonder if things could have been different for Ryan had Joe Biden not laughed in his face on national television way back in 2012.
The fact that Paul Ryan is fleeing the very disaster he helped manufacture is just and fitting, an appropriate demonstration of the modern Republican ethos. He made rich people richer and served as a turnstile for the most dangerous president in living memory. History will remember him as yet another hollow man whose passage was marked only by the sound of the wind moaning through his empty spaces. Paul Ryan will not be missed.