In The Age Of Trump, Mark Sanford’s Political Career Fades

Ryan announced in April that he would not be seeking re-election, ending a 20-year run in Congress that, for most of it, seemed to be on a straight-up trajectory. Ryan’s official reason for leaving was that his “family clock was ticking” and he no longer wanted to be a “weekend dad.” But it’s easy to suspect otherwise, and not just because that is a clichéd excuse: Ambitious 48-year-old politicians at the peak of their powers don’t suddenly just decide to quit because they’ve discovered that their teenage children are growing up fast back in Wisconsin. Ryan should, by rights, be riding out of town at the pinnacle of his starlit Washington career. Yet he remains a distinctly awkward match to a moment — and president — that seem certain to define much of his legacy.

As has been strenuously noted, Trump and Ryan are stylistic and philosophical opposites: Trump the blunt-force agitator vs. Ryan the think-tank conservative. Trump lashes out while Ryan treads carefully. Ryan still fashions himself a “policy guy” and a man of ideas: In high school, he read the conservative philosopher Ayn Rand and was captivated by her signature work, “Atlas Shrugged.” He bills himself as a guardian of the free-trading, debt-shrinking notions that Republican-led governments used to stand for before Trump crashed the tent. The speaker says he tries to encourage good behavior in the president. “He put out a tweet last night that was really good,” Ryan told me after he and the president hung up. (It was apparently an innocuous tweet about trade.) The speaker’s words carried the vaguely patronizing tone of a parent affirming a potty-training milestone.

Trump used to call Ryan “Boy Scout.” “I thought it was a compliment,” said Ryan, a former altar boy and habitual people-pleaser. But after the Republican-controlled Congress passed a few bills Trump announced to Ryan that he would stop using the nickname. “So I guess he meant it as an insult all along,” the speaker said. “I didn’t realize.” Ryan shrugged.

Questions about Donald Trump have been an inescapable companion to Ryan’s final months in office. They have trailed Ryan since the billionaire showman first incinerated the Republican Party as he knew it and reduced the boyish speaker to his most puzzled-over foil. “It was shocking to me,” Ryan told me of Trump’s rise. “I didn’t see it coming. It threw me off.” What would the supposedly principled conservative speaker tolerate? What would he fight for? Would he fight at all?

Ryan is clearly sick of the “What about Trump?” questions and of having the dilemma imposed upon him. He has been held up as a figure of disdain across the spectrum: Trump-lovers have remained suspicious of him as a tool of the establishment and are quick to raise Ryan’s sacrileges against their hero during the campaign; Democrats, “never Trump” conservatives and — quietly — some elected Republicans wish Ryan would provide a stronger counterbalance to a battering-ram president. Ryan, the rap goes, has deserted his post as a potential conscience of the party and voice for decency, and he has allowed Trump’s most fervent acolytes in the House — Devin Nunes, for instance — to run wild in his defense. The speaker knows better and yet goes along anyway. “Ryan traded his political soul,” the conservative columnist George F. Will has written, “for ... a tax cut.”

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In The Age Of Trump, Mark Sanford’s Political Career Fades

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In The Age Of Trump, Mark Sanford’s Political Career Fades

In The Age Of Trump, Mark Sanford’s Political Career Fades

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In The Age Of Trump, Mark Sanford’s Political Career Fades

In The Age Of Trump, Mark Sanford’s Political Career Fades

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In The Age Of Trump, Mark Sanford’s Political Career Fades