News analysis

Ryan emerges bruised as Republican civil war ensnares President

WASHINGTON • For two days in January, all seemed right in the Republican Party.

Gathered in Philadelphia for their annual congressional retreat, less than a week after President Donald Trump's inauguration, lawmakers exulted in the possibilities of total government control, grinning through forums about an aggressive 200-day agenda that began with honouring a central campaign promise - repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The President showered praise on his most important partner, the man with the Bill-writing pen, the man who would find the votes. "Speaker Paul Ryan - very, very special," Mr Trump said. "He is writing his heart out, right? And we're actually going to sign the stuff that you're writing," he added.

"Now," said the President, "it's going to happen."

As it turned out last Friday, it did not happen. And less than 18 months after being elected as Speaker, Mr Ryan has emerged from the defeat of the healthcare Bill badly damaged, retaining a grip on the job but left to confront the realities of his failure - imperilling the odd-couple partnership that was supposed to sustain a new era of conservative government under unified Republican rule.

So far, to the surprise of some close to Mr Trump, he has remained upbeat on Mr Ryan, a frequent punching bag during last year's presidential campaign and an ideological mismatch whose instincts informed the moulding and selling of the healthcare Bill far more than the President's own.

Mr Ryan leaving a press conference last Friday following the defeat of Mr Trump's healthcare Bill. He retains a grip on his job as US House Speaker, but is left to confront the realities of his failure.
Mr Ryan leaving a press conference last Friday following the defeat of Mr Trump's healthcare Bill. He retains a grip on his job as US House Speaker, but is left to confront the realities of his failure. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But after a humiliating defeat, which many Trump advisers are eager to pin on Mr Ryan, the Speaker is now tasked with defending not just his leadership abilities but also his very brand of conservatism in a party fitfully searching for a coherent policy identity that can deliver tangible victories.

For Mr Trump, the biggest defeat in his short time in the White House is the result of something else - a long-running Republican civil war that humbled a generation of party leaders before he ever came to Washington.

A precedent-flouting president who believes that Washington's usual rules do not apply to him, Mr Trump finds himself shackled by them. In stopping the repeal of former president Barack Obama's proudest legacy - the Republican Party's professed priority for the last seven years - from even coming to a vote, the rebellious far-right wing out-rebelled Mr Trump, taking on and defeating the party establishment that it has long been at war with and which he now leads.

Like everyone else who has tried to rule a fissured and fractious party, Mr Trump now faces a wrenching choice: retrenchment or realignment. Does he cede power to the anti-establishment wing of his party? Or does he seek other pathways to successful governing by throwing away the partisan playbook and courting a coalition with the Democrats, whom he has improbably blamed for his party's shortcomings?

"It's really a problem in our own party, and that's something he'll need to deal with moving forward," said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, an ally of the centre-right Tuesday Group, which stuck with Mr Trump in the healthcare fight and earned the President's praise in the hours after the Bill's defeat.

"I think he did a lot - he met dozens and dozens of members and made a lot of accommodations - but in the end, there's a group of people in this party who just won't say yes," Mr Cole said. "At some point, I think that means looking beyond our conference. The President is a deal-maker, and (former president) Ronald Reagan cut some of his most important deals with Democrats."

Mr Trump is not there yet. Before becoming a presidential candidate, he seemed to have little fixed ideology. But as president, he has operated from the standard-issue Republican playbook, embracing many of the positions held by Mr Ryan and the party establishment.

While he is angry and thirsty for revenge, he seems determined to swallow the loss in the hope of marshalling enough Republican support to pass spending Bills, a still-to-be-formed tax overhaul, and a US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) infrastructure package - legislation that could attract considerable Democratic support but has the potential to split the party.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Ryan emerges bruised as Republican civil war ensnares President'. Print Edition | Subscribe