Across the political spectrum, media reaction to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement announcement Tuesday was swift and unusually brutal.

Among the headlines: “Paul Ryan Will Retire as the Biggest Fake in American Politics” (Esquire). “Paul Ryan’s Whole Career Was About Sticking It to the Poor And Elderly” (Huffpost). “9 Times Paul Ryan Put American Workers Last, Foreigners First” (Breitbart News). “Paul Ryan Personifies the Devil’s Bargain the GOP Struck With Trump” (The Atlantic).

And there were more: “Paul Ryan’s Proudest Moment: Setting the Country on a Collision Course With Financial Ruin” (Vanity Fair). “Lame Duck Paul Ryan Could Cost House Republicans Crucial Campaign Cash” (Washington Examiner). “Paul Ryan’s Legacy of Red Ink” (Politico) and “Good Riddance, Mr. Speaker” (New York Times op-ed).

What ignominious epitaphs for the man who a decade ago was the blue-eyed boy of American politics. The young deficit hawk from Wisconsin was lionized for his detailed plans to set America’s fiscal house in order. He was all about fiscal responsibility. Flash back to 2014, when as House Budget Committee chairman, Ryan unveiled his plan to balance the federal budget in 10 years.

He leaves wearing the collar of budget buster deluxe. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s assessment, the GOP’s signature tax reform act, shepherded through the House by Ryan, will likely balloon the deficit past $1 trillion within two years.

Had that been the worst of Ryan’s political sins, he might have escaped some of the contempt he is enduring today. What bothers many Americans more has been his silence in the face of Donald Trump’s worst behavior. After declaring that he was sickened by the infamous Access Hollywood tape that emerged just before the 2016 election, Ryan nonetheless endorsed Trump for president. His response to Trump’s racist remarks after Charlottesville was typically equivocal. He has been a classic fence-sitter, pursuing appeasement when a more honorable man in his position would have taken a stand to thwart a dangerous and reckless chief executive.

His “spinelessness in the service of partisanship” (Harry Cheadle, Vice News) has helped bring the republic to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

Tuesday’s headlines make these points loud and clear. With the GOP facing disaster in the midterm elections, Speaker Ryan has decided that his best option is to lead from behind.

Now that he’s free from the restraints of seeking re-election, however, Ryan has an opportunity to show the country what he’s really made of. Or have we already seen it?

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