by Rod D. Martin
April 11, 2018
The conventional wisdom (as well-summarized this morning before the formal announcement at Axios) is that Republican donors and Washington insiders will take House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement as a sign that the House is lost, and that funding must shift to the Senate races as a “last bastion”. There are kernals of truth in that, but as is so often the case, the CW misses more than it gets right.
As far as the base is concerned, Paul Ryan is an immense disappointment, John Boehner 2.0 or worse. Ryan’s career (for those paying attention) began — and continued for years — as a brilliant young conservative reformer, intent on fixing everything that’s wrong with the nanny state. Those paying attention — and there were lots of them — were thrilled when he was picked for Vice President, because it signaled that he really was the future of the party, in a more positive version of George H.W. Bush’s having become the future of the party in 1980 and 1988. There was legitimate hope that things were trending the right way.
Paul Ryan as Speaker was quite another matter. He certainly showed more spine and did more good than Boehner, but it would have been hard not to. And despite real achievements (particularly December’s Tax Reform), as of this moment, his time is bookended by the awful Boehner budget he was forced to pass upon first taking office, and the awful Ryan budget just passed. It would be easy to get into the weeds on both of those, but the point is that none of Ryan’s early promise is what the base sees in him today. Today, he personifies the Beltway, the Swamp as it were, rightly or wrongly.
So what does that mean for November?
First, as I’ve been warning for months now, the real issue for Republicans in November is the one that’s been costing them races for some time now: the enthusiasm gap. Democrats are fired up, Republicans aren’t. We can bemoan the stupidity of this — why fight so hard in 2016 just to give it away two years later? — but we can’t avoid the reality of it.
If Ryan is leaving, there’s a real chance that someone better could take his place. That has potential to be a game changer, IF Republicans don’t squander the opportunity and make a premature succession decision (or worse, a premature succession decision in favor of a RINO). The opportunity to bring a fighter to the top spot might just light a fire at the margin, and everything is won at the margin.
The perception that the Speaker is leaving — regardless of who he is or what his reasons — could add to that. The CW will continue to blare that this means Republicans are doomed. Well, we were doomed in 2016 too, and we rose to the occasion, despite most of our side actually believing it was doomed. An actual reason we have to overcome, rather than a general trend of “inevitability”, is something we can work with. We’ve worked with it before.
Moreover, Ryan will want to leave on a high. That will push him toward passage of some legacy legislation. Remember that in his core he actually is a conservative policy wonk. Burnishing “legacy”, unencumbered by the need to get re-elected, will unquestionably help conservatives, the President, our numbers and thus our team in November.
Second, if money does flow to the Senate races, that’s not a bad thing. Money spent on the Senate side will help our House candidates too, and at present, not enough Republican money is flowing to the Senate races, in a year when mathematically we should have a historic blowout. Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats, Republicans just 8; and at least 10 of those Democrat seats are flippable. At the high end, Republicans could end up with a 60+ seat Senate, enough to routinely break filibusters and pass any agenda they want. This doesn’t fit the media narrative, but this is what’s at stake.
Third, make no mistake: that “blue wave” is anything but inevitable. The RCP average has the generic ballot at D+7. But that includes a couple of outlier polls (one openly Democrat, the other not-openly) at D+11, both of which are bogus. And even including them, the key point to remember is that Republicans win the House at D+5 or better. Yes, the polls are and always have been that biased. So at this moment, we’re either winning or within the margin of error.
The CW got every jot and tittle of 2016 wrong. Don’t think it suddenly got smarter, or less biased against us.
And whatever Paul Ryan’s flaws, he’s still one of the smartest guys in the room. Don’t think he hasn’t had all of these thoughts, or that his timing is disconnected from them. It isn’t. And if he really is taking one for the team, that will add back a lot of luster to a once-illustrious career.