Paul Ryan’s retirement: A ‘self-promotion’ that makes sense

Washington is literally atwitter with speculation as to why Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan will attend Biden's inauguration COVID-19 relief bill: A promising first act for immigration reform National Review criticizes 'Cruz Eleven': Barbara Boxer shouldn't be conservative role model MORE has chosen to end his congressional career by not running again for the U.S. House of Representatives. Is he fearful that Republicans will lose the House in 2018? Will he run instead in the Republican primary against President TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE in 2020? Or, does he simply want to spend more time with his family?

While all of these factors may be in play to varying degrees, I believe the main reason is more in line with the words of the great philosophers Evelle and Gale from the classic 1987 film “Raising Arizona.” Asked if they had escaped from prison, Evelle and Gale calmly stated: “We didn't escape, we released ourselves on our own recognizance. We felt we'd reached the limits of what the institution had to offer us.”

Ryan always was a bit of a reluctant politician. Though he’s been an effective speaker, his background has been more political product designer than salesman. He was an influential staff member for then-Rep. Sam Brownback on the House Budget Committee during the “Republican Revolution” of the ’90s. He worked with Chairman John Kasich and others to cut taxes, control spending, balance the budget and grow the economy. At the staff level, he forwarded many ideas he had advocated as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp at Empower America.  


As a congressional staffer, Ryan helped lay the groundwork for a balanced budget agreement in 1997. As House speaker, Ryan passed a generational tax cut. But pro-growth, responsible government policies such as entitlement reform, while common sense to Ryan, aren’t that common in Washington anymore.  

And who hasn’t soured on Congress?  Voters’ approval of the institution remains stuck deep in the mud of a country pig pen. Like many presidents before him, Donald Trump often uses them as a foil regarding matters such as health care reform, DACA or the border wall when he cannot achieve his policy objectives. Members themselves rail against the workings of Congress and their own jobs, using terms such as “pretty much sucks.”  The fundraising grind is relentless and the campaign cycle is “always on.” It’s a big reason GOP retirements this cycle are the second highest in history.  

What is left for Ryan to do? We are roughly 30 percent of the way through Trump’s first term and the remainder of the president’s policy agenda offers little that would appeal to a pro-growth lion such as Ryan. A trillion-dollar infrastructure plan? Nope. A wall along the Mexican border? Not really. A messy DACA showdown not of his own creation? I don’t think so.  

There’s plenty left in Congress that Paul Ryan could do. But arguably, there is little left that he would want to do.  Combine this with all the signals pointing toward a midterm Blue Wave: Congressional headwinds, low presidential approval, record Republican retirements, hard dollar GOP fundraising issues, and challenges in candidate recruitment.

If Democrats do retake the House this fall, not only does Ryan give up the gavel but he subjects himself to becoming a bit player in the Democratic sideshow of using the legislative power of the House to push back against administration policy on issues such as health care, immigration, the environment and gun control — all for the purpose of creating GOP division, vetoes and framing political choices for 2020.

This is not to mention a likely unprecedented commitment to investigations and inquiries of the 2016 campaign, the Trump administration and the president himself, up to and including possible impeachment proceedings. It is easy to understand why Ryan might believe that’s a role he’s not well cast for and his time in public life should be dedicated to a different direction.

In checking out of the Congress, an institution where Ryan has reached the limits of what he can accomplish, I would speculate he will not choose a political path but rather offer himself a promotion to some other, healthier, more accommodating environment in which he can advance the ideas he has always passionately articulated. Perhaps a think tank, such as American Enterprise Institute — I hear there is an opening — or another outside institution or group.  

Free of the burdens of political fundraising, organizational challenges, member gripes and institutional restrictions, Ryan can establish himself as the conscience of a Republican Party fervently in search of its inner voice. Republicans have no one better-suited to do so. I join many of them in understanding his decision to “self-promote” himself up and out of the Congress and wish him only the very best.

Bruce Haynes is founding partner emeritus and of counsel to the bipartisan strategy firm Purple Strategies, with offices in Washington and Chicago. A former chief of staff to then-Congressman Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and staff counsel to then-Gov. Carroll Campbell (R-S.C.), Haynes is a 30-year veteran of politics, public affairs crisis and corporate reputation management. He has consulted on political campaigns and provides counsel to political figures, Fortune 500 companies, leading trade associations and nonprofit organizations. Follow him on Twitter @BrucePurple.