Paul Ryan returns to private life

My column for the Washington County Daily News. It’s a look back at Paul Ryan’s career (so far) and his impact on Wisconsin and the nation. It gets lost in the heat of the current political season, but Ryan was the first Speaker from Wisconsin and is legitimately a historical figure. Here you go:

The news did not come as a surprise, but it was still a shock. Rep. Paul Ryan has decided against seeking re-election this year. It will be the first time in 20 years he will not be on the ballot. The reverberations of Ryan’s remarkable career will be felt in Wisconsin and the nation for generations. And at only 48 years old, he may not be done yet.

Ryan entered politics as soon as he graduated with a degree in economics from Miami University in Ohio as an aide to Sen. Robert Kasten in 1992. He served in various supportive roles for powerful Republicans, including as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp, who Ryan considered an influential mentor.

Ryan got his turn to run for office in 1998 when Rep. Mark Neumann decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Ryan won the 1st Congressional District by a convincing 14-point margin and had firmly held the seat since.

Ryan quickly established a reputation as a sincere, intelligent, articulate, consistent advocate for his core conservative beliefs. During his 20 years in Congress, whether in the minority or the majority, he was always pushing to reform the fundamental structures that continue to undermine our nation’s potential — rampant entitlement spending and a byzantine tax system.

It is the nature of American politics that nobody completely gets what they want. Our system of competing interests and balanced power ensures that the only way to accomplish anything is through compromise. Some of Ryan’s detractors criticize that he was unable to fully accomplish his oft stated ideals of reforming and restraining the federal government, but it is precisely Ryan’s ability to compromise without capitulating that led to any accomplishments at all. There are plenty of bomb-throwing ideologues in Congress. We fellow ideologues love them, but they are rarely effective in moving policy. Ryan’s style actually moved the ball forward.

Ryan’s signature and crowning accomplishment came when he was serving in a role he never wanted and under an unlikely Republican President. Ryan never wanted to be Speaker Ryan because he is, at his heart, a policy wonk. The job of Speaker is to cajole the caucus to move legislation written by other people. Ryan wants to write the legislation. Ryan answered the call of the Republican caucus in their time of crisis because sometimes duty and loyalty trump personal ambitions.

The landmark 2017 Tax Reform Law marked a transformational shift in the tax code that will be felt for generations. It is a signature achievement that has Ryan’s years of effort baked into its very core. Americans will benefit from this achievement long after they have forgotten how it came to be. As Speaker, Ryan also wrestled passage of many reforms including the repeal of Obamacare and entitlement reform. Unfortunately, too many of those legislative efforts found their graves in the stodgy, dysfunctional Senate, but Ryan did his job and did it well.

Throughout his tenure as representative, committee chairman, vice presidential candidate and Speaker, Ryan also justifiably maintained a reputation as a genuinely nice guy. He had a style in which he was able to aggressively debate and advocate policies without the personal hatred and animosity that infects too many other politicians. In this respect, perhaps he is too much of a throwback to a different era of politics in which his mentors lived. The ability to disagree without being disagreeable is becoming a rare gift in the modern era.

As the first Wisconsinite to serve as the Speaker of the House, Ryan stands unique in Wisconsin’s pantheon of political giants. He has certainly earned the right to slip into obscurity and indulge in the enjoyments of private life. As for me, I know that there comes a time on the horizon when the people of Wisconsin will call again for his leadership, and I pray that he will answer the call.

Until then, thank you, Speaker Ryan, for serving the citizens of Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District and our nation.