Rethinking America

Why Even Democrats Should Vote for Speaker Ryan

As Americans must regain their respect for one another, how far should Democrats go to work with Republicans now?


  • As a symbolic act, House Democrats should consider casting votes for Speaker Paul Ryan.
  • There are symbolic concessions that cost nothing and there are policy concessions. Democrats should distinguish.
  • Tthe health of the US republic depends on how well the broad swath of Americans manage to overcome exceptional animosities.

The level of disagreements inside the United States today is reminiscent of those inside the former East Germany.

No doubt, hard political battles lie ahead. The question is whether Americans can display the comity to work through those encounters without breeding political paralysis, prolonging an era of polarization and ill-will.

For example, knowing that they cannot elect their own leader as speaker of the House, Democrats this coming Monday could do something surprising — signal their willingness to work across party lines (within reason) by casting a vote for Paul Ryan to hold that office.

A potent appeal for bipartisanship

Democrats have often been blamed for offering up premature concessions that come to hurt them politically. Much of that is true. However, the step that I am proposing is different in nature.

It ultimately costs the Democrats’ nothing in real substance, but is symbolically important.

In a country whose electorate is badly frayed, they could offer up a gesture that is designed to provide some healing. If Speaker Ryan were to respond, and rule more inclusively (rather than immovably with an iron partisan fist), Democrats would have a lot to gain.

As things stand, the minority party in the House of Representatives accounts for next to nothing when it comes to passing legislation.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, is known to be a fighter for her party’s cause. If she would show the magnanimity and vision to encourage such a vote, it would be hard to interpret as (another) step by Democrats to cede the role of honest opposition prematurely.

Pelosi could make clear that such support would not in any way prejudge the Democrats maintaining independent policy positions.

And she could stress that such a step was designed precisely to convey respect for the office and to invite Ryan to search for broader alliances, beyond just Republicans.

A Speaker for all

At minimum, it would serve as a reminder that the House Speaker is (in theory!) a position representing the whole chamber, not just one party, and is in the nation’s constitutional line of succession after the Vice President.

More broadly, however, opening the possibility of bipartisan coalitions – almost a fleeting historical memory at this stage in U.S. politics — could help relieve the pressure on the speaker to follow the so-called Hastert rule instituted in 2004.

Under this crude tool of enforcing partisan loyalty (in the presumed spirit of preserving party unity), Republicans have refused to allow floor votes on bills in the House of Representatives unless a majority of their party caucus supports them – even if a majority of the House and the Republican leadership supports the bills.

That counterproductive practice empowers the most extreme members of the Republican majority and severely constricts the Speaker’s ability to bargain.

It played a major role in the resignation of former speaker John Boehner, even after he occasionally abandoned the rule and sought the votes of Democrats to override his obstructionist hardliners during crises.

Combating vitriol

In the Senate, it behooves Democrats to be as generous as they can in considering the incoming president’s nominations – at least on those who are not transparently unqualified – and policy recommendations. There will be ample opportunity and necessity to oppose the administration.

Likewise, Senate Republicans need to display early and often a commitment to seek consensus on major issues. Otherwise, the legislative gridlock that has marked recent decades may only worsen.

Amid such uncertainty about the purpose and direction of the executive branch, it is Congress and the courts that will have to be the stabilizers of government.

Who will do the healing?

Whatever develops regarding future Supreme Court nominations, Chief Justice Roberts has shown prudence in shaping judicial conduct. He will need that strength even more.

Most problematic are the specific initiatives that a Trump presidency will mount. Donald Trump has much to prove.

Even his supporters must recognize that he has demonstrated no capacity for healing the social frictions he has exacerbated.

How will he react to the mixed reception his proposals are bound to receive? Truman’s maxim about being able to stand the heat in the White House kitchen stands as a particular test for Trump.

Trump’s ability in that regard is not helped by the fact that he evidently yearns for constant praise and approval — and bristles at criticism.

Future jokes are on him

A sobering reality for Trump will settle in soon. Now that Hillary jokes are passé, humor at the incoming president’s expense will undoubtedly persist and grow.

Trump’s remarkable habit of asserting as true statements that have no basis (other than as revealing his own preferences) have already elicited a pattern of ridicule by the media.

This is true even though the media clearly relish the fact that they now have an entertainer as President, which promises an eternal campaign (and high click rates).

In the past, even the least popular presidents of United States have enjoyed some sort of grace period from the press. However, signs are that Trump may have no similar honeymoon.

Whether he can ignore or rise above the caricatures that will emerge remains to be seen.

No help from the global environment

At home and abroad, the coming years will bring serious peril. To a significant degree, that peril will wax or wane depending on the performance of Donald Trump as president.

Yet, no matter who occupies the White House, the health of the American republic will depend on how well the broad swath of Americans manage to overcome the exceptional animosities that shaped the 2016 election.

Most Americans respect the office of the president, but many cannot ignore the qualms they feel about the man who now assumes the office.

The only way out

What they must do is find ways to reaffirm their respect for one another.

The task begins with the presumption that, wisely or unwisely, every ballot cast reflected the voter’s belief that it would advance the national interest. That shared intention is the vital bond Americans should never relinquish.

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About Alton Frye

Alton Frye was staff director for Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and worked in the presidential campaigns of John Anderson (R-IL) and Howard Baker (R-TN).

Responses to “Why Even Democrats Should Vote for Speaker Ryan”

Archived Comments.

  1. On January 1, 2017 at 2:57 am T.M.Menon responded with... #

    A very sensible piece, altogether!

  2. On January 1, 2017 at 11:45 am H. H. GAFFNEY responded with... #

    The main problem with all this is that Paul Ryan, guided by the ghost of Ayn Rand, the Koch Brothers, and the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus, wants to exclude the Federal Government (“Washington”) from funding or directing everything except defense, and to leave it to the states to make all the laws and direct all society. That would leave us with two countries — the Blue States (with 64 percent of the economy) and the Red States. The Red States would effectively be the reincarnation of the Confederacy, with a sole mandate of restoring “White America.” Blacks and Latinos would be excluded from the vote and social welfare programs — they would be, in effect, serfs/slaves doing the bidding of whatever massas they worked for. Ryan, under these very strong influences (they must be paying him well) is highly unlikely to compromise.

  3. On January 1, 2017 at 12:10 pm Bluestocking responded with... #

    If Speaker Ryan were to respond, and rule more inclusively (rather than
    immovably with an iron partisan fist), Democrats would have a lot to gain…Senate Republicans need to display early and often a commitment to seek consensus on major issues.

    Speaking as a registered Democrat, I frankly see little or no evidence to suggest (and therefore little or no reason to believe) that either of these possibilities are very likely. With all due respect, the only effective way to address a problem is to start from where you are — not from where you would like to be, which is what Mr. Frye appears to be doing here. No matter how sensible any proposed solution to a problem might appear to be, it’s all academic unless it creates a clear — and even more importantly, realistic — path from Point A (where you are now) to Point B (where you want to be). It’s all very well and good for Mr. Frye to talk about Speaker Ryan “rul[ing] more inclusively rather than immovably”, but he appears to be leaving out at least one very important question here…namely, where is Ryan’s incentive or motivation to do this??? Where is Ryan’s incentive to put country before party (because that is what it would require of him)??? At present, at least from where I’m standing, he doesn’t appear to have any such incentive. On the contrary — if anything, the fact that the Republicans will hold the DC trifecta (both houses of Congress and the White House) for at least the next two years strongly suggests that he has every incentive to steamroll the Democrats just like Dennis Hastert often did during the 108th and 109th Congressional sessions when George W. Bush was in the White House.

    In order to achieve the “consensus” that Mr. Frye wants, some form of compromise would definitely be necessary from Congressional Republicans. “Compromise” is defined as a form of conflict resolution in which BOTH sides, not just one, make concessions. If only one side makes significant concessions, that’s not compromise…that is surrender, which is not the same thing at all no matter what some people might choose to think. Compromise aims for a win/win solution — surrender is a win/lose solution, and as such it tends to breed resentment which usually only serves to widen rather than narrow the divide between the people involved. As Mr. Frye acknowledges, Democrats have made too many premature concessions already to their own detriment. If he really wants Democrats to work with Speaker Ryan and the Congressional Republicans in an attempt to heal the breach in this nation — an outcome which I agree is desirable but for which I unfortunately see little reason for hope (I fear we are heading for a scenario not unlike that of India in 1946) — then the Republicans would need to provide a show of good faith, and in more than just words, that they are not only willing and able but ready and prepared to put country before party.

  4. On January 3, 2017 at 1:41 pm ubott responded with... #

    Why does this article get double coverage? A day earlier nearly the same was published.

    I then commented: I am sorry, the times of Democratic appeasement are over. Democrats collaborated with George W. Bush. To what avail? Only for Mitch McConnell to announce at the beginning of the Obama presidency that Republicans had only one goal “to make him fail” and they tried through eight years of utterly obstructionist policies. They denied Obama his constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as nominating a Supreme Court Justice, by simply deciding that the second term of a black President should only last three, not four years.

    Now that our absurd political system has brought to power a racist, misogynist xenophobe who is determined to take down our entire social safety net, we – Democrats – should encourage him by supporting Paul Ryan, a man who shares many of those horrific views but packages them in a slightly more palatable way?

    Blue State Democrats are tired of being tyrannized by a minority. Blue State Democrats are also tired of the fact that our federal tax dollars do not get returned to us but instead are handed over to red states, where the vast majority of those who depend on “government handouts” live. We are ready to invoke our states’ rights wherever we can and we are prepared to undermine this illegitimate president every step of the way.

    It is time for Democrats to stop bringing a pocket knife to a gun fight. And we sure do not need a Republican to show us the way. Thanks, but no thanks. From now on, we are taking the low road. It has been well paved by Republicans.