The retirement of Paul Ryan after only two and a half years as speaker of the House, though rumored for months, was made official on Wednesday morning, setting off a race to succeed him as leader of the House Republicans. I very much recommend this post from Jonathan Bernstein, and have a few additional thoughts of my own.
It's impossible to understand Ryan's speakership without understanding the bizarre circumstances under which he came to power. John Boehner abruptly announced his departure from Congress in the fall of 2015 after anti-Boehner Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus threatened to force a procedural motion to depose him. Boehner's previous lieutenant and heir apparent, Eric Cantor, had unexpectedly been defeated in the Virginia Republican primary the year before, and Cantor's successor Kevin McCarthy, presumed at first to be next in line for the speakership, proved unable to line up enough votes within the Republican conference. (McCarthy, who remained as majority leader, is preparing to take another shot at the top leadership position now that Ryan is leaving, though the voters will decide in November whether or not that position is the speakership.)
Ryan, who was not a member of the party leadership at all in 2015 (he was chairing the Ways and Means Committee at the time), was finally persuaded to stand for speaker by an increasingly desperate Boehner in concert with other senior Republicans, protesting all the while that he was not actively seeking the job and didn't really want it. As it turned out, this wasn't just clever posturing designed to increase his leverage with the Republican conference. From the day he took the speaker's gavel until the present, Ryan has consistently behaved very much like someone who wasn't especially comfortable in the role and whose primary political preoccupation was to avoid suffering the awkward fate—unsentimentally pushed out the door in the midst of a congressional session—that had befallen his immediate predecessor.
It turns out that there are pretty good reasons why the speaker of the House is usually a veteran party "pol" rather than an ideologue or policy specialist—and is usually someone who views the position as the desired culmination of a long-held ambition rather than a potential impediment to his or her even greater future plans. While Boehner, a widely underrated leader, repeatedly put himself on the line politically in order to protect his party, Ryan instead risked his party in order to protect himself—including by the way he announced his retirement.
Throughout his tenure in office, Ryan acted more like an ideological activist than as the leader of a party or a country. Ideological leaders of the left and right have their place in our political system, but that place is seldom at the head of a congressional caucus. Boehner understood that the greater interests of his members sometimes required him to take heat from conservative insurgents for departing from ideological purity; Ryan instead manuevered to direct blame onto others in order to preserve his own reputation in conservative circles.
Donald Trump's shocking rise to the presidency presented Ryan with a series of challenges that he lacked the political creativity or courage to address effectively. Ryan never had a good plan for protecting the Republican conference in the House from being seriously damaged by Trump's political deficiencies. He neither found a way to publicly distance his electorally vulnerable members from Trump's antics nor advanced a popular set of policies for which they could claim credit in 2018. Ryan's office played a major role in developing the one major legislative achievement of the current Congress—the December 2017 tax reform act—but the bill directed its benefits to such a narrow segment of the population that it turned out to have limited appeal among average voters. By the end of the race in last month's special election in Pennsylvania, Republicans had more or less stopped trumpeting the tax cuts in their campaign advertising, concluding that the issue didn't really help them win support even in a seat carried easily by Trump in 2016.
Ryan could have used his own platform as speaker to send Trump signals that certain presidential behavior would have negative consequences—or to reassure the electorate that a Republican Congress could be counted upon to serve as at least an intermittent check on the chief executive. Instead, Ryan tended to treat reporters' questions about Trump as hostile "gotchas" designed to embarrass him personally, and he declined to act when the House Intelligence Committee, one of the last vestiges of bipartisanship and institutional independence on Capitol Hill, devolved into pettiness and rancor over the Trump-Russia issue. In general, Ryan was less inclined than previous speakers to talk or act like an officer of the United States government rather than merely the leader of a partisan majority, even though Trump's ascendance arguably made such a responsibility even more important in his case.
Finally, Ryan's own departure from Congress has occurred in a manner that puts his own career ahead of other Republicans' interests. Had he left last year, he could have plausibly argued that the electoral climate in 2018 was not yet clear; had he waited until after this fall's election, he could have avoided sending the message during the campaign that Republicans were likely to lose control of the House and would have delayed an open leadership fight within the Republican conference that will now play out over the course of the election season. But Ryan, who at 48 can dream of a long political future beyond the speaker's office, did not wish to risk associating himself with what may turn out to be a devastating electoral defeat. He may be the captain of the House Republican Party, but he has no intention of going down with the ship.