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Clarence Page

Although he leans about as far to the right as I do to the left in political beliefs, I've always had a soft spot for Paul Ryan.

Our common ground was the late, great Jack Kemp, the pro football quarterback-turned-congressman who, until his death from cancer in 2009, mentored Ryan and other bright young think-tank conservatives of the Ronald Reagan era.

Kemp was a leading although sometimes lonely voice for "big tent," opportunity-based, inclusive and tolerant Republican conservatism. With a hefty agenda of enterprise zones and other market-driven ideas for economic and educational development, Kemp aimed to attract racial, ethnic, gender and economic diversity back to the party of Abraham Lincoln.

As an African-American who misses the days when both parties actively competed for black votes -- and is willing to try any social or economic reform idea that works, regardless of whether it comes from the right or the left -- I rooted for Kemp's efforts.

And, while Democrats caricatured Ryan in a TV ad as a heartless fiend casually pushing granny in her wheelchair off a cliff, I found a ray of hope in the rapport I saw Ryan quietly build with a number of grassroots, low-income community organizations around the country.

But, alas, that's also why I was disappointed, yet not very surprised when the 48-year-old Republican dropped this bombshell last week: He will not seek re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has been speaker since 2015.

He claims he wants to spend more time with his family, but nobody who's familiar with Washington's political culture believes that well-worn excuse, no matter how true it may be. There are other more obvious professional reasons, all of which speak to the deeply polarized atmosphere that paralyzes politics in the era of President Donald Trump.

Ryan cited family reasons for his reluctance to take the speakership, which he had to be talked into by fellow GOP leaders. Along with the mighty powers of that office these days come a lot of headaches from a Republican caucus deeply divided between its right-wing and far-right-wing factions.

Ryan, a self-proclaimed policy wonk, was ill-suited for the hardball tasks of holding those factions together. That task is vastly complicated by the rise of Trump, who has been the antithesis of Ryan in his taste for the politics of grievance and distaste for the details of legislation and other governance.

Ryan and Trump differ on immigration, trade and fiscal policy, and Ryan has openly criticized Trump's race-baiting and misogyny. But, like other GOP leaders, Ryan was a lot more outspoken about their differences before Trump became president.

Since then, and after the GOP failures to repeal Obamacare or pass infrastructure repair and other major agenda items, the recent tax overhaul is Ryan's biggest single achievement. Yet passing that measure before the midterms required a betrayal of the GOP's promise to reduce the deficit and shrink spending.

Instead, the Republican tax cuts and last month's budget-busting $1.3 trillion spending bill will push the deficit to more than $1 trillion in 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office. With his critics wondering what happened to Ryan's fiscal conservatism, this may be as good a time as any for him to exit.

Ryan's departure is a sign that congressional Republicans see gloom ahead in the midterm elections. He joins at least 37 other Republican House members who have indicated they won't be running for their seats again this year. Just as voter excitement in 2016 was most visible and vocal on the right, this year, we can see it building on the left.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for the future may be a return to the political center for Washington's leaders, depending on how much Democrats decide to swing further left.

If anything, the currently divided state of congressional Republicans shows the value of sticking with the sensible center, a place our Congress has not seen in a long time.

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