Paul Ryan is stepping down because he has seen the writing on the wall

The influential Republican suffered many indignities at Trump’s hands, but gritted his teeth and achieved the tax cuts of his dreams.

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Spare a little pity for Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives.

Once feted as a rising star and potential future presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney’s running mate for president in 2012, and the influential architect of the Republican economic platform, Ryan announced Wednesday morning that he would not seek reelection to Congress in November.

Ryan, who accepted the position as speaker when his predecessor John Boehner stepped down in October 2015, will serve out the remainder of his term and step down as Speaker at the end of 2018.

He said that he had no regrets about his tenure in America’s most senior legislative job. But he originally took up the position only reluctantly and after intense pressure from his Republican colleagues. He has spent most of his tenure in a state of quiet exasperation.

He had been in the job for just three months when Donald Trump won his first primary vote in New Hampshire in February 2016. At first an outspoken critic of Trump, Ryan described comments by his party’s then-candidate for president about a judge of Mexican-American heritage as “textbook racism”. He seemed to check out almost entirely during the campaign, when horror mounted on horror.

Under the surface, he cannot have relished the idea of a Trump presidency. He was probably more excited by the prospect of being de facto leader of the opposition under a Clinton administration – a position which, he cannot but have imagined, could well have made him the nominal frontrunner to be the GOP candidate for president in 2020.

But it was not to be. Instead of becoming Clinton’s nemesis, Ryan found himself the apologist for a historically unpopular and wildly unpredictable president, whose allegiance to the Republican party has at times seemed unreliable at best. Ryan weathered indignity after indignity with gritted teeth:  Trump attacked him over his handling of the debt ceiling, suddenly sided with congressional Democrats on fiscal policy and gun control, and even publicly called him disloyal.

Becoming at times visibly emotional on Wednesday, Ryan told press at the Capitol building that he was “satisfied” that he had made a “big difference” as speaker, but that he didn’t want to be a “weekend dad” to his children any more.

Please. There may be no more abused cliche in the political lexicon than “I am retiring to spend more time with my family”, and Ryan’s claim to this motivation rings as hollow as it ever does. That was most likely not sadness welling in his eyes as he made his announcement, but relief. Make no mistake: Ryan is retiring because he has seen the writing on the wall.

The recent special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district became a debacle for the GOP when Democrat challenger Conor Lamb narrowly beat Republican Rick Saccone to win a district which voted for Trump in 2016 by 20 points. Polling indicates that a “blue wave” may be coming, as the growing backlash against Trump and Trumpism begins to translate into voter movement. Ryan is not the only rat leaving the GOP ship: no fewer than 46 incumbent Republicans in the house are not seeking reelection in 2018.

If those numbers hold through to the mid-term elections this November – and it is worth remembering that November is still a long way off yet – then it seems increasingly possible that the Democrats could take back the House of Representatives, which would have lost Ryan his job as speaker anyway.

But don’t shed too many tears for Ryan. He leaves Congress with one of highest ambitions achieved. He told reporters that “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do,” responding when asked what he was proud of: “normalising entitlement reform, pushing the cause of entitlement reform and the House passing entitlement reform”.

“Entitlement reform” is the Republican euphemism for welfare cuts, and the tax plan signed into law by Trump in December was the realisation of Ryan’s lifelong dream of slashing taxes on corporations and the rich, and gutting America’s already threadbare welfare state in the bargain.

With that in the bag, rather than deal with the daily nightmare of the Trump White House any longer with his legacy assured, Ryan retires knowing his place has been forever secured in the pantheon of history’s greatest public sector vandals.

So maybe save your pity after all.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.