Paul Ryan
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I feel like my blogging has gotten painfully repetitive, and I apologize for that. My compulsion to keep hitting many of the same themes like a dead horse is driven by the persistence and strength of narratives that I feel are dangerously wrong. Sometimes it’s easier to see something after the fact, and if you go back to what I wrote just prior to President Trump making a deal with Schumer and Pelosi, you’ll see that I was saying that the time had come for the right to be sidelined.

In that piece, I used the Heritage Foundation’s September action plan as a stand-in for “the right,” so I was focused on a broad array of policies. It wasn’t just the debt ceiling and a possible government shutdown, but also what to do with the FAA and CHIP and national flood insurance policy. The overall conclusion, though, was that the right was still making impossible demands on Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. By extension, they were making impossible demands on Donald Trump, too. And it was getting late enough in the game that it just wasn’t going to be possible to humor the right anymore. It was time for the entire Republican leadership to pivot and start working with the Democrats.

When it actually happened, the next day, it was of course disguised and filled with sideshow narratives about Trump selling Ryan and McConnell out, but the truth was that Ryan and McConnell were every bit at the end of their ropes as the president was, and they all needed to pivot. To be honest, I had been thinking about that moment for almost a year. Back in October of 2016, when I still thought the Access Hollywood tape had destroyed any chance Trump had, I was already thinking about September 2017 and what it would do to the Republican Speaker when he or she had to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a shutdown for President Clinton.

My assumption at that point was that Ryan would not seek to be reelected Speaker if Trump lost and would not succeed if he tried.

Again, we’re assuming here that Clinton wins the presidency and the Republicans retain a narrower majority in the House.

The Republicans will search around for someone who is willing to take the job of passing spending bills that President Clinton won’t veto. But the standard they’ll set for their candidate is that they won’t pass spending bills that President Clinton will sign. Only a fool would volunteer for such an assignment, and only someone dishonest could fulfill both roles at once.

The House Republican caucus will struggle to find a candidate and they will struggle even more to unite around that candidate. It may very well prove impossible, but, if so, that won’t become clear immediately.

The first order of business will be pushing someone who is completely free of all accusations that they stabbed Trump in the back. Anyone else will be unacceptable to Trump and his Breitbart/Hannity driven fire- breathers.

If they succeed in uniting around someone, that candidate will have marching orders that make it clear that Clinton’s agenda and budget are dead on arrival. Paul Ryan couldn’t pass a budget this year and he and McConnell have not passed a single appropriations bill. The next Speaker will fare no better, and they’ll need to pass continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown. Before long, they’ll need to extend the debt ceiling again. They’ll fail at both unless they’re willing to rely on a minority of their own caucus going along with almost all Democrats.

Just as Boehner fell in the exact same situation, the new Speaker will fall.

Just as water will always find a way, the need to pay our bills on time will eventually force a “responsible” faction of House Republicans to conclude that, for the creditworthiness of the country and the health of the global economy, it is no longer possible to caucus with their intransigent brethren. This would have happened in 2015 if Boehner hadn’t agreed to step down in return for getting the votes to keep the government open and extend the debt ceiling. This may be the same exact price the next Speaker strikes on their way out the door.

Things obviously turned out differently is some key respects. Trump actually won, and Ryan remains the Speaker. But everything else in there was prescient in spite of the fact that Trump won. Ryan actually had to promise not “to rely on a minority of [the Republican] caucus going along with almost all Democrats,” in order to pass anything, let alone to extend the debt ceiling.

Wiggling out of that promise without having to resign was Ryan’s biggest challenge before Hurricane Harvey arrived and gave him a chance to win a majority of his caucus in support of raising the debt ceiling.

When you’ve seen the parameters in these terms for so long, it doesn’t surprise you when things basically follow the script. What’s surprising is all the weird ways other people come up with to describe what they’re seeing.

This is why I don’t place a lot of emphasis on trying to figure out what the different players are thinking (or not thinking). The basic dynamics have been driven by some larger forces that the individuals have to operate within. They may thrash about and strain against their constraints, but they’re still trying to do some very basic things: pass a budget, send the appropriations bills to the president, avoid defaulting on our debt. These are the key things that Congress must do, and the Republican Party could not do them when President Obama was president and they still cannot do them.

Would they be able to repeal Obamacare? Almost surely not.
Would they be able to pass a big tax reform? Not without a budget.
Would they be able to pass a budget? It’s hard to see how.
Would they be able to avoid a default? Yes, but it would break them.

At some point, the effort to govern with all Republican votes was going to fail. Trump just magnified that failure by signing onto a legislative strategy that depended upon it not just for health care and tax reform but also for everything else.

I always saw this September as the latest point in time when this would all come to a head and force both the president and the congressional leadership to pivot.

That they try to hide what they’re compelled to do is not surprising, but it also shouldn’t be believed.

None of them wanted this. They postponed it and postponed it. And now they have all these baffled people wondering what the hell is happening:

“Republicans have spent so much time and money targeting Nancy Pelosi as the enemy over the last few cycles, the idea that you’re now going do a deal with her has to rub people the wrong way,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican consultant who has worked for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. “Doesn’t it hurt all these Republican congressmen who want to use her as the liberal foil in their campaigns?”

“It is just confusing,” Mr. Schriefer added.

Imagine just how confused you have to be to think this is happening because any of the Republican leaders want to make deals with Nancy Pelosi. They demonized her for political advantage, and they let people (including, perhaps, themselves) believe that they wouldn’t need her votes because that helped them raise money on false promises.

But there was always going to be a time when the music stopped and they’d be left without chairs to sit in.

There are always details and surprises like Hurricane Harvey, but the basic outcome of this play was foreordained. The only thing that could have really changed it was preemptive action by actors who had the foresight, courage and leadership abilities to write a different ending. Trump has none of those qualities. Ryan and McConnell seem to read their lines scene by scene without a greater understanding of their meaning.

So, we’ve arrived now. And very few people understand how we got here.

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