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.