Paul Davis Ryan — once the Republican Party golden boy, now the speaker of the House who is leaving elective politics after two decades at just 48 years old — said the thing that bothers him the most in today’s political climate is “identity politics.”
“I’m an old Jack Kemp guy that believes strongly in inclusive, aspirational politics that are based on bringing people together and not exploiting divisions,” Ryan said in an interview in his Capitol suite.
“With identity politics being played all around and 21st-century technology accelerating it, and putting gas on the fire — that is my big concern of politics these days. And that makes it harder to have political goodwill in this country because of all this polarization.”
“Look, he won the election,” Ryan said of President Trump — once the object of his constant criticism, later his legislative partner — when prompted by a reporter.
“He’s the president of the U.S. We’re making really good progress on a lot of signature issues. We’re making a positive difference in peoples’ lives. If you can deny the oxygen of identity politics, the best way to do that is to have a faster growing economy, more upward mobility, higher wages, getting people from poverty into the work force.”
With that, the Ryan speakership comes to its effective end.
His tenure atop the House of Representatives started as a martyrdom, of sorts — Ryan said he didn’t want the job but was shoehorned into it by his colleagues, and he let everyone know he was doing it out of duty, not desire.
The speakership morphed into a rolling critique of Trump, then the Republican running for president. But Ryan ended up as a private adviser to the commander in chief, clearly frustrated at times but resigned to the fact that it was Trump who was president, and if he could only tune out some of the incessant noise, he could get things done.
In the interview with a pair of other reporters — his first print interview since his surprise departure announcement hours earlier — Ryan said he viewed the Trump presidency as a “great opportunity” to “make a big difference for the country” — and he told Trump that shortly after his election.
Ryan said he will leave Washington having accomplished much of what he set out to do, while making headway on unfinished priorities.
He rewrote the tax code for the first time in two decades, something he had been talking about since the late 1990s.
But he’ll leave with several dozen other House Republicans, many of whom have said they’re bone tired of today’s political climate.
In fact, Ryan’s announcement will likely spark more retirements in the House GOP less than seven months before Election Day.
“Yeah, he makes it more interesting, no two ways about it. I can do with [fewer tweets], he knows I think that, I say it to him all the time,” Ryan said of Trump.
“But I like the fact that we’re not letting grass grow under our feet.”
He added, “The issue of the moment — the tweet of the moment — pales in comparison to the big policy changes I believe are going to make a difference in people’s lives, and are going to move us in the right direction. … We’ve done so much stuff that I really think is going to have a lasting impact, and those things completely overshadow the frustration of the day or the moment.”
The leave-or-stay decision has been rolling around in Ryan’s mind for some time, he said. But it came to a head recently in Springfield, Missouri, during a fundraising trip.
A successful, 84-year-old donor approached him with some thoughts.
“I know you’re a family man,” the man told Ryan.
“Lemme give you a piece of advice I wished I listened to. They used to say it’s not the quantity of time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality of time.
"That's bull. It's both. And don't forget that," the man told Ryan, the speaker recalled in the interview.
Ryan said it hit him in the face like a 2-by-4.
Over the Easter recess, Ryan flew to Prague with his family for nearly a week and discussed leaving Washington after nearly a quarter century as a Capitol Hill aide and member of Congress.
They finalized the decision Sunday evening over dinner in Janesville, Wisconsin.
"My wife's doing 90% of the parenting and I don't want that to happen," Ryan said.
"And I basically knew, if I do another two years after this year, they're only going to know me as a weekend dad."
Ryan's three kids, all teenagers, have lived their lives knowing their dad as someone home on the weekends, and during congressional recesses.
His oldest daughter has started considering colleges.
"I've always felt like I was running against the hourglass of my kids and it's just that," he said.
The critiques of Ryan are legion these days.
His approval numbers have taken a hit, and there are plenty of political observers who think Ryan is not doing enough to check the Trump presidency.
The NYT reported that the president was on the brink of firing special counsel Robert Mueller just months ago.
The president's personal lawyer had his office raided, in search of documents relating to a payoff or a porn star and Playboy model.
But Ryan hasn’t endorsed legislation to keep the president from firing Mueller.
Ryan said he discusses issues like Mueller’s situation with the president, but he vowed to "keep our personal conversations personal."
"We have very candid conversations with each other," Ryan said, emphasis on the "very."
Ryan seems accustomed to dealing with the president — something that was foreign to him during the campaign. For example: Trump appreciates when Ryan criticizes him privately, instead of publicly.
“It works better to have private conversations than public disputes,” he said. “It’s more effective … with the president in particular. He appreciates that. He appreciates that when we have disputes or differences of opinions that we air them out privately, and what I’ve learned is, he learns and he responds and he respects.”
Ryan’s departure announcement has set off a battle for control of the House Republican Conference between Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. The speaker said he has a preference but would not discuss it.
He also said he’s not sure what he’ll do next. He hinted at continuing his work on curing poverty, and said he would think further in 2019, once he’s officially out.
Asked whether he would run for office again, Ryan said no. But he would accept an ambassadorship to Ireland in a decade or so, he said.