In May of 2010, long-standing Wisconsin Congressman David Obey announced his retirement from the House of Representatives. Obey had first been elected in 1969, nearly a year before then up-and-coming Republican Congressman Paul Ryan was born. And even though Obey frequently criticized Ryan’s policies, Ryan issued a statement praising the stalwart Democrat for his service.
“David and I have had our policy disagreements over the years,” said Ryan, “but he has always had my respect.” Ryan noted that Obey had “served Wisconsin and served this country honorably,” and wished him the best.
It was not a courtesy always extended to Ryan when the now-Speaker of the House announced on Wednesday that he would not be seeking re-election. Shortly after the announcement, Democratic Madison-area Congressman Mark Pocan took to Twitter to post a single enthusiastic smiley face emoji, before posting an op-ed that accused Ryan of overseeing the Republican Party’s “moral demise.”
On Instagram, Democratic State Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison posted a snarky video of herself gleefully waving goodbye to a cardboard cutout of Ryan. On Twitter, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — a former congressman himself — used Ryan’s retirement to take a swipe at Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “If Paul Ryan is stepping down because he can’t defend his policy decisions to voters,” Barrett said, “perhaps Scott Walker should consider that too.” (Of course, Barrett tried to keep Walker from the governor’s office twice, and lost both times.)
And these were just the responsible people. In The New York Times, a Paul Krugman column accused Ryan of being complicit in supporting “fascism” by working with President Donald Trump. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin offered “Three ways that Paul Ryan could recover his soul.” Randy Bryce, a Democratic candidate for Ryan’s former seat who goes by the moniker “Iron Stache,” ludicrously suggested it was the robustness of his facial hair that drove Ryan from the race.
This is a surprising level of grave-dancing from a party that just a year ago lost a presidential race to one of the most absurd candidates to ever run for the nation’s highest office. (And yes, the same could be said of the GOP, but they are not setting off fireworks over Ryan’s retirement.)
What is clearly evident is that even the basic mores of political decency are melting away, leaving us engaged in ideological war all the time. There’s no doubt that Donald Trump has a great deal to do with this change: “Magnanimity” is not a word synonymous with a man who took to Twitter just this Friday to once again label the woman he beat 16 months ago “Crooked Hillary.”
And it is Trump who has tarnished Ryan’s legacy as a man of dignity and principle, who suffered unspeakable abuse while never responding in kind.
Yet people forget that Trump happened in spite of Ryan, not because of him. And yes, while many conservatives took issue with Ryan’s eventual endorsement of Trump during the campaign, what exactly was Ryan supposed to do once Trump assumed office? Refuse to work with the president in passing legislation because of whatever fleeting offense Trump may have given that week? Should Ryan just have shut Congress down until the president decided to behave, or should he have continued trying to do the work demanded of him by his constituents and the voters that elected his members to Congress?
If anything, the undignified reaction on the left to Ryan’s retirement should provide a silver lining for Republicans, who look to be in for a difficult slate of November elections. As the union protests of 2011 demonstrated in Wisconsin, there is no anodyne issue to which progressives won’t ludicrously overreact. Just as their overreach seven years ago drove more Republicans into elected office in the state, so too can their histrionics in 2018. “Overplaying your hand” appears to be both the first and last chapter in the Democratic playbook.
Just three weeks ago, Ryan held a ceremony on the House floor to commemorate U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) becoming the longest-serving woman in the history of the House of Representatives. Following his gracious speech, Ryan briefly hugged Kaptur and his long-time nemesis, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It was a moment of dignity between political rivals that is becoming all too rare.
Evidently, we live in an era where some elected officials can’t be respectful even for a moment. Unless we can all grow up a little, America needs a more representative symbol than the bald eagle. Given the current quality of our members of Congress, perhaps a sad-face emoji will do.
What’s the biggest thing in Republicans’ favor? Democrats.