Sam Rayburn, the man who served as speaker of the House for longer than anyone in American history, held the office for more than 17 years — and that included such trying times as much of the Great Depression and all of the Second World War.
Paul Ryan, the duplicitous Ayn Rand acolyte whose main skill is playing the mores and anxieties of credulous journalists like a Fisher-Price piano, is giving up after only three years. In a press conference Wednesday, he announced he would not be seeking re-election this year.
Ryan's abbreviated political career — he took office in 1999, but is only 48 years old — is a testament to the depth of the intellectual and moral rot in the GOP. He is the second consecutive Republican to be chewed up in the speaker's office; his predecessor John Boehner lasted a bit over four years before resigning abruptly in 2015 after relentless criticism from his own party.
The problem for both Boehner and Ryan was rooted in the fact that the Republican Party has for well over a decade now been running on the political equivalent of a paper bag and a can of spray paint. Any inconvenient facts, like climate change or the deficit-exploding effects of tax cuts for the rich, were simply denied. The cautious moderate Barack Obama, well to the right of Nixon or Eisenhower on some important economic questions, and so desperate for bipartisan support he was willing to countenance large cuts to Social Security and Medicare to get it, was portrayed by the GOP as basically a Marxist guerrilla who had faked his citizenship.
As Alex Pareene has written, during the Obama years the GOP transformed from a party with a base largely composed of "riled-up kooks" to one where a critical mass of elected officials and most of the conservative media elite were just as nutty.
Paul Ryan cruised to national prominence on the realization that there was no longer any immediate penalty for a Republican lying constantly, about everything. (Donald Trump would later take advantage of this fact.) Ryan spent the Bush presidency earnestly recommending the books of Ayn Rand, and railing against fiscal conservatism. He demanded even larger tax cuts for the rich and scorned those in his party who would try to pay for them.
But in 2009, as the deficit exploded due to the recession, Ryan turned on a dime to become Mr. Deficits Are Bad. He discovered that centrist political journalists, who have for complex sociological reasons long been fanatical advocates of austerity, could be easily tricked into thinking of him as a crusader for deficit cuts. A stern frown, a semi-competent display of technical knowledge, and a steady series of worshipful profiles commenced. Ryan became the Republican Wonk Prince.
When Ryan was nominated for vice president in 2012, James Fallows noted he was astonishingly cavalier about the truth. In his convention speech, Ryan lied not just about arguable ideological points, but about easily-checkable matters of public record. Democrats shook their heads; Republicans automatically refused to believe anything bad about their candidate.
The bill for all this deception came due, however, when Donald Trump actually won in 2016. It is easy and comparatively low-consequence to lie constantly when one's agenda has no chance of passage. But Ryan kept on lying when trying to sell his replacement for ObamaCare, claiming it would "protect people with pre-existing conditions," while in reality it would do the opposite and snatch coverage from millions. The party was pinned between still somewhat reality-cognizant moderates, worried about a deluge of calls from constituents desperate not to receive a Republican death sentence, and the fanatical kook wing, demanding even more millions be robbed of their insurance. As Boehner also discovered, nothing they could realistically pass would satisfy the party's gibbering right wing.
In perhaps a worst-case scenario, Republicans just barely got the bill through the House, only for it to fail in the Senate. Now most of the House Republican caucus is facing midterms against a powerfully mobilized left having cast votes to swipe insurance from tens of thousands of their own constituents.
A healthy political party builds support for its agenda by presenting a reasonably honest version of what they want to do (granting some slanted sloganeering here and there). That's why Democrats in 2009 or 1933 were able to get so much done. Baldfaced, up-is-down lying — like huffing paint fumes — may provide a cheap and easy political high. But the long-term consequences tend to be steep indeed.
However, Ryan did get one big accomplishment done: giant deficit-exploding tax cuts for the rich. It's been the lodestar of his entire adult life. He'll go down in history as a man who enabled the criminal abuses of Donald Trump — unlike the Republicans of 1973, totally abdicating Congress' responsibility to hold the executive branch to account — so that the wealthiest people in the world could have even more money. It's a fitting legacy. Or, as Ryan said in his press conference, "I think we have achieved a heck of a lot."