Janesville, Wisconsin has never been known as a national political hotspot. For decades, its deepest connection to the national stage rested in the Lincoln-Tallman House, a historical house built by the Tallman family that once hosted U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as an overnight guest. As part of Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, it is located 61 miles southwest of Milwaukee and boasts a population just under 64,000.
In 1970, Paul Davis Ryan, Jr. was born to Elizabeth and Paul Ryan, and in Janesville he grew up with 55 of his cousins. His family was one focused on commerce, but he eschewed his family’s business tradition by running for the seat of Wisconsin’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives. With his victory over Democrat Lydia Spottswood, Ryan was elected to the House at the fresh age of 28. In a C-Span interview in 1998, upon being asked if other members of his family had ever held political office, Ryan said, “no, I’m the first public sector person in my family – I guess you can call me the black sheep.”
The Paul Ryan present on today’s national stage seems a far cry from the one who prides the “rolling fields and pastures and a multitude of fine lakes and streams” of his district. Pundits and politicians have followed Paul Ryan’s every move since he was elected to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in October of 2015. He initially refused nomination for the Speakership, touting himself as “a policy guy” and satisfied with his position as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he could tackle his chief objectives of rewriting the tax code and overhauling entitlement programs. Yet upon a swell of Republican support, he ultimately accepted the nomination, and he has served as Speaker to this day.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, many citizens and politicians alike have looked to Speaker Ryan in expectation, as Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate and a Republican in the Oval Office offer a rare opportunity for swift political action. During Trump’s transition, he and Ryan agreed to address health care through a tactic called “budget reconciliation” first, partly for procedural reasons. The budget resolution for the current fiscal year dictates reconciliation measures must reduce the deficit, which the proposed American Health Care Act was designed to do. After repealing and replacing Obamacare, Republicans planned to draft a new budget resolution for the next fiscal year that would allow for more aggressive cuts through their tax reforms.
After holding it under lock and key in the basement of the Capitol (which prompted Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to almost-comically hunt for the bill to “demand a copy for the American people”) Paul Ryan finally rolled out the American Health Care Act just over three weeks ago. He was immediately met with sharp criticism from both sides of the aisle. This criticism only intensified after the release of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report for the bill, which forecasted it would leave 24 million more Americans uninsured after a decade and significantly raise healthcare costs for people in their 50s and 60s. Many hardline conservatives, especially those from the House Freedom Caucus, dubbed the bill “Obamacare Lite,” rejecting it on the grounds that it did not sufficiently repeal the Affordable Care Act. Moderate Republicans and House Democrats, meanwhile, worried about the huge loss in coverage under the bill. Republicans from districts that benefitted from Obamacare especially worried how a drop in coverage might affect their chances in the 2018 midterm elections.
In the days before they voted on the bill, many Republicans found themselves stuck between campaign promises to repeal Obamacare and a bill that would harm many of their constituents. Speaker Ryan became an arbiter between moderate and hardline Republicans, modifying and adding to the bill to gain some votes while losing others. He pushed ahead with a short timeline for voting on the bill. President Trump supported the bill (which, interestingly, would seem to contradict his promise of “insurance for everybody” in the Obamacare replacement plan), and before the vote, issued an ultimatum that it was now or never to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Despite his support, the ultimatum, and the Republican’s discontent with Obamacare, Speaker Ryan ultimately had to pull the bill from the floor, as he did not have the 215 votes necessary to send the bill from the House to the Senate.
Speaker Ryan’s failure to unify Republicans on healthcare has led many to question his competence as the leader of the House. Many Trump advisers are eager to pin the humiliating defeat on Ryan, but Trump himself has remained grateful, saying, “I want to thank Paul Ryan. He worked very, very hard. I will tell you that. He worked very, very hard.”
President Trump’s unruffled response to the defeat perhaps comes as a surprise, given some of his past comments about Speaker Ryan. In October during the midst of his campaign, Trump tweeted that Ryan was a “weak and ineffective leader” after Ryan distanced himself from Trump’s campaign. His comments about Ryan since the American Health Care Act’s failure have been supportive, but some pundits have speculated he is employing other means to criticize Ryan.
On Saturday morning, President Trump tweeted to his 27.2 million Twitter followers that they should watch conservative commentator Judge Jeanine Pirro on Fox News that night. As her show opened at 9:00 pm, Pirro launched into a six-minute tirade against Paul Ryan, arguing he needs to “step down as Speaker of the House, the reason being he failed to deliver the votes on his healthcare bill, the one he had seven years to work on.” She goes on to praise President Trump’s dignity in the defeat and absolve him of any responsibility for its failure. She questions Speaker Ryan’s loyalty to the party and blame him for making Trump look ineffective as president. While Pirro claims to have not spoken directly to President Trump before calling for Ryan’s resignation as Speaker, given Trump’s tweet, it seems natural to question the Trump administration’s role in her diatribe. Many reporters have found the tweet and the tirade too coincidental to be innocent.
Speaker Ryan attributed the American Health Care Act’s defeat in part to the “growing pains of going from opposition party to governing party.” Republicans no longer have the presence of President Obama to unify against, and the fractures between moderates and hardliners within their party have become more evident. With Speaker Ryan proclaiming that for now, “Obamacare is the law of the land,” he and House Republicans are turning toward objectives of securing the border, rebuilding the military, controlling the deficit, building infrastructure, and (most challenging of all) reforming the tax code. It is unclear how President Trump’s and Speaker Ryan’s relationship will fare while the House tries to achieve these goals, but if consensus continues to be out of Republicans’ reach, Speaker Ryan may soon not just be the black sheep of his family, but in a more serious way, too of the Republican party.