'No Regrets': House Speaker Paul Ryan Will Not Seek Re-Election

Apr 11, 2018
Originally published on April 11, 2018 8:06 pm

Updated at 3:00 p.m. ET

House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he will not seek re-election and will retire in January.

"You all know I did not seek this job," Ryan said, addressing reporters. "I took it reluctantly. ... I have no regrets."

Ryan, 48, cited wanting to be around his adolescent children more often.

"My kids aren't getting any younger," Ryan said, "and if I stay, they'll only know me as a weekend dad. That's it right there."

Ryan has three teenage children. He noted that his oldest just turned 16, which was how old Ryan was when his father died.

"I think we have achieved a heck of a lot," Ryan said, noting that Republicans "did big things."

But the GOP-controlled Congress was only able to pass a signature tax cut legislation. That was something Ryan has been focused on since he entered Congress in 1999. On the other hand, Republicans during his tenure were unable to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, advance the ball on entitlement reform or cut the deficit. In fact, the deficit has only gone up. After a high-profile failure last year, Ryan described the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as "the law of the land."

And Congress is not expected to get much, if anything, else done this year before the midterms.

Republican challenges

Ryan's departure is the highest-profile retirement yet in what has been a record number of Republicans already heading for the exits. Ryan wasn't the only person to announce his retirement on Wednesday: Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., also said he won't run for re-election.

That means a total of 39 GOP members are not running for re-election — 24 are retiring from public office altogether, while 15 are seeking other positions. Democrats, meanwhile, are facing about half of that number with only 18 of their members not running for re-election to the House.

There have been rumors for some time that Ryan could retire. And his tenure has been something of an uneasy one — even before taking the job. Ryan ran for the post after House Speaker John Boehner was ousted, under pressure from conservatives in his conference.

He was thought to have little interest in the job, given his position as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. But he was roundly seen as the only person who could get the votes necessary to be elected speaker.

Those tensions didn't entirely go away within his conference, and then along came Donald Trump. Ryan was critical of Trump's demeanor during the 2016 campaign, but he soon swallowed those criticisms when Trump won.

Hoping to push forward on conservative legislation, Ryan worked with the president more than against, but he was still — on a near-daily basis — quizzed by reporters on the latest Trump tweet or sound-off.

Ryan did not mention Trump in his press conference but a source familiar with the speaker's decision insisted that it had nothing to do with Trump.

Trump tweeted out praise for Ryan on Wednesday, calling him a "truly good man." He also touts his "legacy of achievement that nobody can question."

From House staffer to Speaker

Ryan grew up in a Catholic family in Janesville, Wis., After his father died, he worked a series of blue collar jobs to help support his family and himself — from McDonald's to camp counselor to an Oscar Mayer salesman who once drove the company's famed Wienermobile.

Ryan was also a former congressional staffer before he rose to the highest position in the House. He interned for Wisconsin GOP Sen. Bob Kasten while he was attending college at Miami University of Ohio and later joined his staff. He had some odd jobs to help make ends meet during that time too, working as a waiter at a Capitol Hill watering hole and as a fitness trainer.

The politician who had the greatest influence on Ryan by far was New York Rep. Jack Kemp, the famed tax reform crusader and supply-side economics evangelist. He was a speechwriter for Kemp, would go on to work for the think tank he co-founded, Empower America, and would also follow in his footsteps as an ultimately unsuccessful candidate for vice president. Ryan also served as legislative director for then-Kansas Rep. Sam Brownback.

When Ryan returned to Wisconsin to launch his own political career (running for and winning an open seat in 1998 when he was only 28 years old), he adopted many of those same conservative fiscal philosophies once he got to Congress. In addition to pushing for tax cuts, Ryan would go on to put an emphasis also on cutting the deficit and balancing the budget via major changes to social programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

His first major policy push came during the George W. Bush administration when he championed the president's plan to create private Social Security accounts. That crusade failed, but Ryan had put begun to make his mark on the House GOP conference. In 2007, he was named the top Republican on the House Budget Committee and regularly rolled out his own alternative budget frameworks to contrast with President Obama's fiscal plans.

Once Republicans won back the House in 2010, Ryan became one of the "Young Gun" GOP leaders on the rise and assumed the chairmanship of the Budget Committee. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose him as his running mate. After the duo lost, Ryan tried to refocus on working on anti-poverty policies and becoming part of a bipartisan group who wanted immigration reform. In 2015, he would become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, giving him his biggest platform yet to push through some of his conservative economic ideas. Later that year, he would reluctantly succumb to calls for him to run for speaker after Boehner stepped aside.

Looking ahead

Ryan has said he fully expects that this will be his last job in elected politics and the source familiar with the speaker's decision would not discuss Ryan's plans or next steps. "He has always believed this [being speaker] is not a long-term thing," said the source.

But getting out of the spotlight now, especially in the Trump era, could help Ryan should he change his mind about running for office again down the road. Ryan, the vice presidential candidate with Mitt Romney in 2012, is, after all, only 48.

Being a congressional leader is usually not helpful to a politician's public image. They often become lightning rods for political partisanship. By getting out now, one theory goes, Ryan could lay low and potentially run for president at a later date.

Ryan's exit also adds another potential target for Democrats looking to take over the House this year. The filing deadline to get on the primary ballot in Wisconsin is June 1. The primary is Aug. 14.

Although Ryan won his last re-election with 65 percent of the vote, he was facing a strong challenge from Democrat Randy Bryce this year, who had already raised more than $4.7 million.

"Paul Ryan decided to quit today rather than face Randy Bryce and the voters," said Bryce's communications director, Lauren Hitt.

Former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, the current minority leader, called Ryan "an avid advocate for his point of view."

She added, "Despite our differences, I commend his steadfast commitment to our country. During his final months, Democrats are hopeful that he joins us to work constructively to advance better futures for all Americans."

Kelsey Snell contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ryan's exit is potentially the final chapter in a once-promising political career that many inside the GOP long thought would one day make him president. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has this report on Ryan's parting legacy in the Trump era.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: In response to Speaker Ryan's retirement, his longtime friend Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that few Americans have done more to advance the Conservative agenda over the last 20 years. Paul Ryan would agree with that. Here he is on C-SPAN in 1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: So my question is not whether the welfare state's going to fail, because ideologically and morally, it will. What are we going to replace it with? That's what I'm concerned about, and that's why you have to have a set of core principles that guide you as you replace these things.

DAVIS: Over those 20 years, Ryan became the GOP's go-to policy guy on the federal budget. He made many of his core set of principles the mainstream view of the party. Along with fellow House Republicans Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, the trio gave themselves a nickname and made a media splash with a 2010 book by the same name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Together, they are the Young Guns - innovative, energetic, forging new solutions. One book will outline a vision to restore America's prosperity.

DAVIS: When the GOP won control of the House that year, Cantor and McCarthy became party leaders. Ryan took control of the House Budget Committee. He convinced Republicans to pass his ambitious fiscal blueprint to balance the budget, tackle the debt and to help pay for it all by privatizing Medicare.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: This is our defining moment. We must choose this path to prosperity.

DAVIS: He succeeded in almost single-handedly making the privatization of Medicare a philosophical pillar of the Republican Party. To fiscal conservatives, that moment made Ryan a hero. To Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, a villain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: I want to say to my Republican colleagues, do you realize that your leadership is asking you to cast a vote today to abolish Medicare as we know it?

DAVIS: It also fueled his national rise, which peaked in 2012 when Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate, saying this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITT ROMNEY: With energy and vision, Paul Ryan has become an intellectual leader of the Republican Party.

DAVIS: Ryan was certain they were going to win, so he returned to Capitol Hill dejected. He found renewed energy in 2015 when he became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and set his sights on a lifelong goal of rewriting the federal tax code.

But House Speaker John Boehner threw an unwelcome wrench into Ryan's plans with his surprise resignation that same year. After weeks of internal drama, it became clear that only one Republican could bridge the ideological divides within the party and secure the votes to become speaker. He didn't want the job, but he agreed to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: We're going to move forward. We are going to unify.

DAVIS: But the reluctant speaker quickly became swept up in another political battle he didn't seek out. As the 2016 presidential campaign unfolded, Ryan and Donald Trump came to personify the ideological wings at war within the GOP. And for much of 2016, the Ryan wing believed they would win out.

The speaker positioned himself and his views as the counterweight to Trumpism. He disavowed their candidate when he showed sympathy to white nationalist sentiments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: When I see something that runs counter to who we are as a party and as a country, I will speak up.

DAVIS: And when Trump attacked a federal judge by implying he couldn't be impartial on immigration because he was Hispanic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: Claiming a person can't do the job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.

DAVIS: And he disavowed Trump in the homestretch of the campaign after the "Access Hollywood" tapes emerged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: I am not going to defend Donald Trump - not now, not in the future.

DAVIS: The Trump wing won, and Ryan quickly realigned himself as a presidential loyalist. He declined to criticize Trump to the point that he cracked a knowing joke about it at a charity dinner last October.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: Every morning, I wake up in my office and I scroll Twitter to see which tweets that I will have to pretend that I did not see later on.

DAVIS: Ryan made the same bargain that most Republicans have made under Trump - to tolerate his tweets and character failings in the pursuit of shared policy goals. And for Ryan, it was worth it. In announcing his retirement today, he said the $1.5 trillion tax cut passed last December is one of his greatest achievements, and he owed it all to President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: The fact that he gave us this ability to get all this stuff done makes me proud of the accomplishments that I've been a contributor to - makes me satisfied that I've made a big difference, and he's given us that chance, so I'm grateful to him for that. And that's really - that's really how I see it.

DAVIS: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office this week delivered a reality check on Ryan's core set of principles. The deficit and debt are rising faster now, in part due to those tax cuts. By the end of the next decade, the public debt is projected to hover around $29 trillion.

Ryan's retirement is also a signal that those principles may not matter as much to the GOP under Trump. According to another retiring Republican, Pennsylvania's Charlie Dent...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE DENT: And I've said this many times, that, you know, the litmus test for being Republican these days is not about any given set of ideals or principles. It's about loyalty to the man.

DAVIS: In the end, Paul Ryan has his principles, and Donald Trump has his Republican Party. Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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