Speaker Paul Ryan with U.S. Rep. Luke Messer.
Speaker Paul Ryan with U.S. Rep. Luke Messer.
FORT WAYNE – Over the last week, rumors began to surface that House Speaker Paul Ryan might retire. In Politico, the suggestion wasn’t subtle.  Their featured magazine piece was headlined: “Paul Ryan Sees His Wild Washington Journey Coming to An End.”  The piece did not leave any wiggle room.  “Ryan has made it known to some of his closest confidants that this will be his final term as speaker.” Before discussing the impact further, let me unpack that statement:
 
1.) An assertion that bold (i.e. no “might be” or “possibly”), in the middle of contentious Washington, can discredit a publication if not rooted in any truth.  In other words, Politico is fairly certain of its source(s). 
 
2.) It means they likely have several sources which could be anything from overhearing people in the restroom or at a restaurant to a staffer, member, or lobbyist.  The assertion doesn’t claim to be a direct source.
 
3.) It could have been a trial balloon leaked by the speaker’s office as a “head’s up people, at some point this is going to happen” or even as a threat to get people in line for the tax and appropriations debates. In other words, he’s getting tired of political Groundhog Day.
 
Then, in the tangled world of media and politics, Speaker Ryan more or less confirmed that it could be his last term.  (Note I used “could be.”) He did that with the strong denial of an assertion not made. The Hill, another influential political newspaper read by political insiders, this past Tuesday carried a headline: “Paul Ryan refutes rumors of early retirement from House.” 
 
A “dismissive” Ryan told reporters at a news conference after a closed-door meeting with House Republicans that “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.” It was the extraordinarily political useful “partial denial” complete with the wonderful word “soon.”  

Synonyms for “soon” include shortly, presently, in the near future, in a moment, in an instant, any minute, any day, and “in the twinkling of an eye.” Personally, I don’t think he was using “soon” like the Bible does about the second coming of Christ.
   
I have known Paul Ryan since we were both staffers in the Senate.  He’s always been too focused on issues to obsess over his political future, personal life and other such mundane things, but, that said, of course he thinks about all those things especially if, as the Politico article stated, both tax and welfare reform pass before the end of 2018.

Speaker Ryan is only 47 years old. He certainly is a potential future president of the United States. While hardly poor, enhanced by the relative wealth of his wife’s family, means that he doesn’t need to make a big salary lobbying, but some extra cash is always nice. The Ryans’ children are 15, 14 and 12. Having more time to enjoy their high school years has probably crossed his mind, as it does every elected official. If you want a normal family life, don’t run for Congress.  It is like being in the military or other jobs that require sacrifice for the greater good.
 
I believe it was somewhere between a trial balloon and a threat. But if he does retire before or after the elections of 2018, it could potentially have a major impact on Hoosiers Mike Pence and Luke Messer. It also could further cause Republican chaos.  It is not like President Trump or Sen. Mitch McConnell provide leadership with specific issue detail.  They like to modify the initial proposals of the House Republicans (i.e. Ryan). 
 
In other words, further inertia and conflict only would help Sen. Joe Donnelly and the challengers to incumbent Indiana Republican congressmen. This is how trends become tsunamis. Paul Ryan is savvy politician. He knows the resignation talk complicates things. If he goes ahead, he may have already concluded that in the current situation a tsunami is inevitable. Or more likely, he has now publicly stated that if the present erratic nature of the Trump administration continues combined with the internal House divides and senatorial inertia, that he is leaving because he’s tired of being the fireman and getting blamed for the fires.
 
A departure by Ryan would likely help him in a future race for the presidency.  He converted the policies of the Trump administration, or the “Trump-Pence administration” which is what it will be in future politics as Mike Pence becomes a top presidential contender, as best he could. If the Trump-Pence administration is viewed positively by Republicans in the future, Speaker Ryan helped its start. If it blows up, Ryan got out perhaps in time.
 
Since Ryan is only 47 (Pence is 58), after 2018 Ryan could wait out six more years of Trump and eight years of Pence (2032), and still be only 62. Vice President Pence will be 61 when Trump-Pence runs for a second term.
 
The more direct impact could be on Conference Chairman Luke Messer. The two elected leaders above him, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise, are already internally scrambling to secure moving up one slot. The wild card is Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip. That position is always under-estimated in leadership fights.  For example, Denny Hastert was chief deputy whip.  Eric Cantor was chief deputy whip. Often the chief deputy is the best headcounter in the caucus.
 
I sought to have McHenry as my subcommittee vice chairman when he was a rambunctious freshman congressman. He remains a tremendous, though more nuanced, in-fighter. McCarthy and Scalise would want him running the whip organization. So, likely, would the Republican members.
 
In other words, the only route up the ladder for Congressman Messer would likely be to run directly for speaker. He is a plausible compromise candidate, and clearly liked by members. He is not, however, known for any particular “idea” leadership and the Republican leadership has an intellectual vacuum if Ryan leaves. So, while this could be a problem if Messer sought the post, if his opponent was McCarthy, it would not be crippling. Majority Leader McCarthy is a listener, a solid and thoughtful guy, but so far hasn’t demonstrated that he is a Ryan type.
 
Conference Chairman Messer could also run into a “Trump” problem, as Congressman Rokita likes to raise. Trump, and Steve Bannon, viewed Ryan negatively, so likely would prefer someone who is more a part of the Trump cheerleading squad. The conference likely does not favor such a person, but might accept someone who hasn’t mused aloud about Trump’s shortcomings. In other words Rokita, unlike Messer, is not even in any internal speaker discussion. McCarthy has been more discreet about the president. Furthermore, Ryan’s statement that it wouldn’t be “soon” suggests that it won’t occur before Senate filing deadlines in Indiana.
 
Messer’s calculations would have so many variables – when does Ryan leave, what are my chances of moving up the leadership ladder, can I at least win the Senate primary, is Donnelly beatable – that unless he just wants out of the Senate race, he likely will not reverse course on the race. One can also get the feeling that we have some sort of Wabash College “king-of-the-hill” match going on between Rokita and Messer. Or, in political parlance, same fight only now with real political bullets.  I think Messer stays in.
 
As for Speaker Ryan, I think he will not seek reelection if he thinks the continuing disorder is going to rip apart the party and cost the Republicans the majority no matter what he does. I think the divisions are nearly impossible to fix. And if men like Paul Ryan and Mike Pence cannot do it, I don’t know of anyone who can.   

Souder is a former Republican Member of Congress from Indiana.