Witcover: Ryan throws in the towel

House Speaker Paul Ryan won't wait for the voters to kick him out of his job in November's midterm congressional elections, a distinct possibility for many Republican incumbents in a much-anticipated "blue wave" of Democratic victories as the country gets more fed up with Donald Trump.

Mr. Ryan benignly confirmed that the Republican Party is now the Trump Party, and that he was finally uncomfortable being a copilot in the destruction of many of the GOP's traditional values.

Instead of standing fast for the reasonable conservative pillars constructed by the likes of Bob Taft, Everett Dirksen, Howard Baker and Ronald Reagan, Mr. Ryan as speaker played dumb and compliant to the wrecking ball in the Oval Office.

Eschewing the opportunity to go out the door fighting for the party's integrity, the man from Wisconsin who once was its vice-presidential nominee trotted out the old explanation that he wanted to "spend more time with my family." That may be true and certainly can be understood under the circumstance of the Trump plague. But in declining to run again he surrendered a major bully pulpit to extract some backbone from the GOP.

Mr. Ryan thus leaves one of the country's two great political parties in the hands of reactionary naysayers personified by the misnamed House Freedom Caucus, which continues to turn the clock back on everything from America's commendable and generous immigration policy to international cooperation built at great cost during the Cold War.

There was a time when the speaker of the House was a highly esteemed and reliable leader, regardless of party, often of long service, from Henry Clay and Thomas Reed to Cactus Jack Garner and Tip O'Neill. Right now, the favorites to succeed Mr. Ryan are House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, both marching in lockstep behind Mr. Trump.

It's possible that during or after the November midterms a new face will emerge in the Republican Party to revitalize it and bring it back somewhat to its old respectability. But if Mr. Ryan's departure triggers an ugly and drawn-out political knife fight against the background of all the Trump malaise, the respectable party of Eisenhower, Reagan and, yes, even the Bushes will remain wounded for some time to come.

Mr. Ryan's single accomplishment was the huge tax reform bill embraced by Mr. Trump. But for all their talk about putting more money into the pockets of low- and middle-class Americans, most economic experts have concluded that the big winners will be the wealthiest, like the president himself. Meanwhile, as the president brags that he has killed Obamacare, it limps along as a major crutch for the millions in need of health insurance.

The social safety net that grew out of the New Deal is steadily being shredded, not only by Mr. Trump but also by House and Senate Republicans, who continue to see it as a glorified dole to the lazy and to undocumented immigrants.

The sad part of Paul Ryan's exit is that, as a rising star in the party and as its 2012 running mate to Mitt Romney, he seemed to have the right stuff to confront Donald Trump on sheer decency and congeniality, as well as smarts. The GOP was badly in need, as the saying goes, of a real adult in the room as it faced the challenge of a president with neither the wisdom or the compassion to lead this great nation.

Instead, the rival Democratic Party, surprisingly flattened by the failure of its 2016 standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, and in the absence of an obvious qualified successor beyond the aging and controversial Joe Biden, seems unprepared yet to take advantage of the panic. It's anybody guess right now what will come of American politics and leadership at home and abroad, out of this forlorn nadir of the our national spirit.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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