Paul Ryan
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I admire the reporting that Robert Costa and Phillip Rucker are doing for the Washington Post but their latest piece strikes me as completely delusional. The subject is worthy. They enlist Washington insiders to paint a picture of how Speaker Paul Ryan and President Hillary Clinton might work together (or not) next year. To be blunt, I can’t see Paul Ryan actually being the Speaker of the House next year. And if he is, I can’t see him lasting for very long.

When the House Republicans convened to elect Ryan as their leader and candidate for Speaker of the House, the vote was 200-43, which might sound like an overwhelming endorsement. But it was actually 18 votes shy of a majority of the 435 members of the full House. In the end, when the real vote happened on the House floor, only nine Republicans voted against him and he was elevated to the Speakership with 236 votes. In other words, his opponents relented in the end even though they could have denied him a majority if they had been willing to go to the wall.

The premise here is obviously that the Republicans will retain their majority in the House after next month’s elections, but everyone agrees that the GOP will lose seats. Charlie Cook, for example, has the Democrats definitely netting five seats with another 26 Republican seats in the vulnerable areas of either “toss-up” or “lean Republican.” He only identifies three vulnerable Democratic seats, only one of which (FL-02) is likely to fall. A large percentage of the vulnerable Republican seats are in states like New York and California where the representatives may be quite conservative but aren’t enemies of Paul Ryan. In other words, Ryan faces a world where he has less support within his caucus than he had when he first asked for their endorsement as Speaker.

Add to this, though, that Donald Trump and his team and his supporters are openly warring with Ryan and castigating him as “globalist” who wants open borders, free trade, and immigration reform. Trump’s campaign adviser Steve Bannon went so far as to instruct his staff at Breitbart to destroy Paul Ryan, and that was before Ryan abandoned his boss’s presidential campaign less than thirty days before the election.

The number of Republicans in the House who are angry about Ryan’s decision to ditch Trump is surely larger than the number that initially declined to support his speakership. And the number of them who are going to be terrified of a primary challenge if they support Ryan the next time around is going to be close to one hundred percent.

One final consideration is that House leaders do not always survive presiding over an election in which their party suffers significant losses. In this case, Ryan has a more plausible excuse than Newt Gingrich had after the disappointing 1998 midterms, but he’s not completely immune from criticism that his strategy made some contribution to the results.

Add it all up, and I see very little chance that Ryan would win an election within his own caucus. Too many of them would have reasons to either resent him or to fear the repercussions of voting for him.

There’s also some reason to believe that Ryan wouldn’t want the job. To begin with, he made some remarks late last month that indicated that he’s very frustrated.

“I’m tired of divided government. It doesn’t work very well,” Ryan said. “We’re just at loggerheads. We’ve gotten some good things done. But the big things — poverty, the debt crisis, the economy, health care — these things are stuck in divided government, and that’s why we think a unified Republican government’s the way to go.”

It’s true that he was at least partially making a case for Trump there (an argument he says he will no longer make), but there is also his presidential ambitions to consider. Assuming they are not already as dead as a doornail, spending two or four years working in a bipartisan manner with President Clinton, even if limited to keeping the government open and functioning, would surely polish them off. And don’t forget that Ryan really did not want the job of Speaker in the first place.

If the Republicans do hang on to a narrower majority in the House and Paul Ryan seeks and gains the Speaker’s gavel again in the next Congress, he’ll immediately discover that he simply cannot pass spending bills without resorting to mostly Democratic votes, which will lead rather quickly to the same situation that Boehner found himself in where he was constantly under threat of being deposed. Ryan surely knows all this.

As a result, I doubt Ryan would seek the speakership, doubt that he’d get it if he did seek it, and doubt that he’d keep it if he did get it.

A better result for the GOP would be to lose control of both houses of Congress so that they will not have any responsibility for governing and can go back to being a minority oppositional party. But, if they are so unlucky to win a majority in the House, they’ll discover (whoever they choose for Speaker) that the real majority and the real power isn’t formed by R’s and D’s but by the majority that is actually willing to pass appropriations and keep the government’s doors open. And that majority simply won’t be made up of wholly Republicans in the next Congress or for the foreseeable future. Regardless of what the voters decide, the GOP is incapable of being a governing party.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at