By The Editorial Board
April 11, 2018 6:51 p.m. ET
Paul Ryan’s decision not to run for re-election for Congress is a blow to Republicans, and his departure at age 48 will leave a particular void in the GOP’s growth and reform wing. But the lesson of his 20 years in Congress is that the Members who matter are those who change the public debate about policies of consequence.
Mr. Ryan deserves credit for taking the job of Speaker that no one else wanted after John Boehner resigned in 2015. He knew the legislative grinder was likely to end his chances of becoming President, but he did it anyway. His policy chops and listening skills helped rally the fractious GOP House into a governing majority rather than merely an opposition to Barack Obama. They developed the “Better Way” reform platform in 2016, and in this Congress they’ve passed most of it through the House and much into law.
The irony is that Mr. Ryan has become a target of the populist and Trump ian right though few in Congress have fought harder or longer for conservative reform. He rose from the backbenches by promoting his “roadmap” for tax and entitlement reform when the Tom DeLay Republicans preferred the status quo. First at the Budget Committee, then at Ways and Means, Mr. Ryan built a GOP reform consensus that became the party’s agenda.
His principal triumph is tax reform, a generational achievement that broke a bottleneck to U.S. business competitiveness and faster economic growth. Donald Trump’s presidential support was important, but tax reform would not have happened without Mr. Ryan’s years of detailed policy work and evangelism. The reason the New York Times and Washington Post loathe him is precisely because he takes ideas seriously and can persuade his colleagues. That makes him far more of a threat to the left than is any talk-radio host.
Mr. Ryan failed on entitlement reform, though premium support for Medicare had a chance if Mitt Romney had won in 2012. Mr. Trump has wanted to duck the entitlement problem, but Mr. Ryan still persuaded him to support ObamaCare repeal and Medicaid reform. Both passed the House only to fail in the Senate. But entitlement reform is inevitable given the fiscal realities, and Mr. Ryan’s ideas are still a roadmap for the future.
The talk-show right won’t admit this because Mr. Ryan understands the occasional need to compromise and hasn’t embraced extreme anti-immigration positions. They have railed against Mr. Ryan as a totem of “the establishment,” which was always more epithet than argument. Mr. Ryan knows that the point of politics is to win power to pass your agenda, not remain in feckless opposition to the supposedly unreformable entitlement state.
On this score Mr. Ryan also deserves credit for managing the Trump volcano. He criticized the candidate and later President Trump when appropriate for his often ugly and polarizing politics. But he has never fallen for the trap of reflexive, self-serving dismissals that win media cheers but accomplish nothing.
Sixty-three million people voted for Mr. Trump, and Mr. Ryan believes that Republicans in Congress have an obligation to use the opportunity of their majorities to help the country. The victories on tax reform, deregulation, judicial nominations and military spending are a vindication of that strategy.
Some are portraying the Speaker’s retirement as an attempt to get out ahead of GOP defeat in November. But if Mr. Ryan wasn’t going to serve another two years win or lose, then better to tell the voters now. Mr. Ryan has already raised $54 million in campaign cash for his fellow Members this Congress, and their fate is tied far more to Donald Trump’s approval rating than to Mr. Ryan’s candidacy.
Win or lose in November, Republicans will have to find a leader who can lead their conference. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and whip Steve Scalise are the main early contenders. Both are known more for their electoral skills than policy knowledge.
That could be helpful if the GOP loses its majority, but Mr. Trump isn’t a normal Republican President who will naturally pursue a conservative agenda. He may cut deal after deal with a Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the House GOP will need to draw on younger talent to develop an agenda of its own.
Now is also the moment for the Freedom Caucus to step up. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows is never short of suggestions for the leadership. How about trying to actually lead? Run for Majority Leader and show if you have the votes for a way forward that is more productive than being a critic on cable.
If House Republicans are banished to the minority, then perhaps Mr. Ryan’s political successor isn’t in Congress. Paul Ryan developed his views about an optimistic, governing conservatism in the Jack Kemp-Ronald Reagan era, and he worked in the vineyards to find his moment. His lesson about fighting for ideas that matter applies in any age.