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Why Ryan will never win as long as Trump is around

The death of the Republican plan to eliminate Obamacare has led to a furious game of point the finger for the Republican leadership. While President Donald Trump has received a large heap of criticism, others, especially Trump supporters in the media, have laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

While there's a clear logic to Ryan taking the hit – after all, he is the leader of the House and that's where the bill effectively died – Ryan's role in the entire process shows the modern-day limitations of being House Speaker. In recent decades, Congressional leaders only got to set policy and serve as truly important national figures if their party did not control the presidency. If the speaker (or Senate majority leader) is from the same party as the president, then the job is a demoted to an unpleasant mix of lightning rod for intra-party criticism and water-carrier for the chief executive.

The speaker used to be the major policy leader in his own right – at times arguably exceeding the importance of the president. While the first few speakers were little more than ceremonial leaders, Henry Clay reshaped the position and helped push the country into the War of 1812 when James Madison was president.

Throughout most of the later portion of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th, the president was frequently relegated to the background in developing policy. Successive speakers became increasingly more powerful and gained greater sway over Congress. It was only when a revolt in the House broke the leadership of "Czar" Joseph Cannon, a Republican who served alongside President Teddy Roosevelt, that the speaker lost his overarching control of the body.

"Last year, Ryan was seen as a savior of the Republican Party. But now his policies and longstanding beliefs are viewed as incidental and even counterproductive. His value to the party-faithful is to help Trump push forward his agenda and to take the blame when it fails."

But the real damage to the power of speakers – and arguably the power of Congress as a whole – were presidents who were interested in taking a leadership position in drafting legislation and using both the bully pulpit and the president's own growing team of draftsmen to push Congress to adopt specific laws.

These presidents, starting at least with Teddy Roosevelt and growing rapidly since Franklin Roosevelt created the Executive Office of the President, overawed Congress. The new, more modern presidents were keen to grab credit for legislative accomplishments that their predecessors left to individual Representatives and Senators.

Presidents have since treated speakers and senate majority leaders more as people who could be dangers to gum up the works. The last time Congress really set the agenda when their president was in power was probably the first years of the Eisenhower Administration. Ike's presidential style, which was a more passive throw back at least in domestic legislative affairs, allowed the Republicans in Congress to play the major role in deciding which laws to prioritize and what to pass.

Speakers may be in the background when their own party controls the presidency, but the opposite occurs when they president is from the other party. Tip O'Neill and Nancy Pelosi are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Both of them stepped to the forefront when the Republicans under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush respectively controlled the White House and both receded when the party spotlight shone on their own presidents, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

Ryan is paying the same price for his own party's success. Last year, Ryan was seen as a savior of the Republican Party. But now his policies and longstanding beliefs are viewed as incidental and even counterproductive.

Ryan seems secure – his position is decided by his fellow Republicans in the House and they certainly have no obvious candidate to replace him. Moreover, if Trump pushed for Ryan's ouster, he would simply set the Republican House caucus against itself, further delay any legislative agenda and be seen as responsible for any missteps from the new speaker.

But it is an uncomfortable position for Ryan. His value to the party-faithful is to help Trump push forward his agenda and to take the blame when it fails. If Ryan succeeded in squaring the Republican circle and managed to repeal Obamacare, it would not have been viewed in the wider world as his success – rather Trump would have been the triumphant figure.

Now that it failed, Ryan is the one facing calls for his ouster. While Trump may seem to be a particular spotlight-seeker, this is true regardless of the party. After all, nobody thinks of the Affordable Care Act as Charles Rangel's (the official sponsor of the bill) or as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid's accomplishments. It is seen as Obamacare.

Commentary by Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. He blogs at The Recall Elections Blog. Follow him on Twitter @recallelections.

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