With Donald Trump’s epically toxic presidential campaign hurting down-ballot Republican Senate races, Democrats are increasingly poised to win a majority of Senate seats in November. Beyond Trumpism, many of the Republican Senators up for reelection are already at a disadvantage because they represent states that typically vote for Democratic presidents, and were elected in 2010 largely because of Democrats’ classic, mid-term voter base woes.
Unfortunately, the civic damage Republicans have done to Congressional districting means that it is unlikely that Republicans will lose control of the House, even if the GOP loses nationally by millions of votes. This is, of course, bad for genuinely democratic representation, but a slim Republican majority is an impending nightmare for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
This is because the House Freedom Caucus of Tea Party obstructionists will take full advantage of Ryan’s slim Republican majority by leveraging their needed votes to try to force radically conservative demands certain never to pass a Democratic Senate nor be signed by a Democratic president. Like legislative blackmail, the Freedom Caucus will happily promote gridlock and hurt Ryan politically if he does not cater to their every whim.
The Freedom Caucus puts their hyper-partisan ideology ahead of the interests of both the Republican Party and America, and the caucus has already forced one Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to retire prematurely for committing the political crime of compromising with the Democratic Party. When Paul Ryan was tapped to replace Boehner—after the brief Kevin McCarthy hiccup—the Freedom Caucus threatened to contest his election. They reluctantly accepted Ryan, but the political calculus is going to change when Election 2016’s Democratic wave crashes into Congress.
The new political calculus will give Ryan two options. The first is to put country first by recognizing that America chose Hillary Clinton’s vision, and to compromise with Democrats by using the House to keep a sensible, but not intransigent, conservative balance on Democrats’ legislative efforts.
Unfortunately, compromise is considered near-existential failure by the legislative zealots in the Freedom Caucus, and any conciliatory efforts toward Democrats’ electoral landslide by Ryan will provoke the Tea Partiers into maligning Ryan as a Republican In Name Only RINO. This could force Ryan to depend on Democratic votes in order to pass legislation if the Freedom Caucus mutinies, and it would be a sure sign of poor leadership if the majority leader consistently depends on the minority party’s votes. If the Freedom Caucus was to truly go rogue and vote against Ryan’s Speakership, Ryan might even need Democratic votes to continue being Speaker of the House. This would likely be interpreted by the Freedom Caucus as an original sin of Paul Ryan’s future legislative efforts.
The second option for Ryan is to cave to the conservative radicals and oppose Clinton as existentially as the Tea Party-styled, 2010-2012 Congress opposed President Obama. Clinton will not have the Congressional supermajorities that Obama had in his first term, so this will be the path of governmental impotence, but it will pacify the mutinous Freedom Caucus.
Either way, Paul Ryan is going to have the most stressful two years of his life. This is precisely the catch-22 that Boehner struggled with on a daily basis, and eventually did him in. Now it is Paul Ryan’s turn through the Freedom Caucus gauntlet of absurdist, legislative sabotage.