Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Thought on Paul Ryan's Run for Speaker

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)
It seems increasingly likely that Rep. Paul Ryan will be the next Speaker of the House, acquiescing to calls from Republicans of almost every flavor that he must run for the good of the party.  This is probably, at least in the short-term, for the best.  Ryan's nomination to be Speaker will almost certainly allow for a debt ceiling vote from John Boehner as he leaves the Capitol grounds, as well as allowing the Republicans to return to the order-of-the-day.  Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are cheering because they will benefit from the honeymoon phase of Ryan's term, trying to play themselves as the Paul Ryan for the White House.  However, there's a lot of intrigue here, particularly since this is a move that Paul Ryan clearly didn't want to make.

The first point is that Paul Ryan's political ambitions have always been a bit-perplexing, but a spot on the way to the Speaker's gavel didn't really seem like one of the things he wanted, at least in the past couple of years.  In his tenure in office, he's seen what Republican Speakers have gone through-Newt Gingrich became an adulterous joke, John Boehner was pushed to tears on the daily, frequently by his own caucus, and Dennis Hastert looks headed to jail.  The Speaker who has fared best during Ryan's term in office is Nancy Pelosi, and she's both a Democrat and someone who was politically crucified in the 2010 Midterms in terms of character assassination and probably needs to leave office before she properly is exonerated by historians.  The phrase Pelosi Democrat is not something anyone wants to be associated with, let's be honest here.  Ryan would have to look as far back as Tip O'Neill for someone who retired after a long and scandal-free tenure at the top, and the Wisconsin Republican was in high school when O'Neill left the House.

This weighs heavily on Ryan principally because I think that his true intentions have been felt in the past few weeks, and they are centered on the White House.  Ryan is a rare bird in politics, someone who keeps his cards and ambitions close to his vest, and actually seems to mean it when he worries about how politics will affect his family, but it's worth noting that up until this term as Speaker, the only political risk he ever took was being Mitt Romney's running mate.  Ryan, elected to the House in 1998, had chances to run for the Senate multiple times, including in 2010 when he would have been considered the favorite.  He could have run for governor, a more traditional launching pad for a presidential hopeful in 2006 or 2010, the latter being an easy steppingstone for the congressman as it was a race he was near certain to win.  Ryan turned down both chances, instead getting stuck in policy conversations with Patty Murray on Capitol Hill and toiling over the budget.  In the process he may have eschewed the increased spotlight and glamour that comes with being a governor or a senator, but he definitely created an intellectual's reputation (regardless of whether or not you agree with his politics, that tag is there for him), something that other leading Republicans have not been able to attain.

For a while there I thought he might want to become Speaker.  After all, with 2016 beckoning and almost every Republican possible taking a turn at bat, Ryan was the rare guy to stay on the sidelines.  Months later this seems still questionable, but a little bit more understandable.  Perhaps after years of seeing what was happening in the House he thought that 2016 might unleash a Trump or a Carson on the populace.  Perhaps he overestimated the appeal of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Jeb Bush (any of these men could beat Hillary Clinton in the general, but while she's clearly lived up to the hype in her primary none of them have in theirs).  Or perhaps, being that he is so ensconced in caution and calculated moves, he saw that Hillary Clinton may be easier to beat in 2020.  Lest we forget, six months ago many people had a Clinton victory on the top of their "obvious list."  Ryan, who is savvy, might have realized that Hillary Clinton can win in 2016, but sixteen straight years of a Democratic presidency is a hard case to make to the voters who like variety (just ask Stephen Harper how difficult it is to keep power for longer than a decade), and he assumed that Clinton would be a one-termer (if she wins, that's definitely my assumption considering history is pretty blistering in regard to her chances). Being still in his forties, the congressman decided to bide his time in party chairmanships, knowing that most of the bench was running in 2016 and would be tainted while he'd still be fresh, and come in as the thinking man's Republican, the guy who could finally end the Democrats' reign in the White House.

That last point I think is what Ryan was thinking, but while it was a risky gamble, it's a better bet than assuming that both John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy would implode, meaning that he would basically have to take the Speakership for fear of a Republican meltdown.  He's a grown man and I don't pity him like Chris Cillizza ridiculously did in an article a few weeks back, but turning down the gavel would mean a demerit on his pretty impeccable resume (2012 aside), and that's something Ryan couldn't stand.  And yet, it's also putting that White House bid in a lot more jeopardy than Hillary Clinton's emails.  After all, there's a reason that Mitt Romney is opining Ryan's not being a contender for the White House in the future if he runs for Speaker (Mitt's been all over the map on this one, hasn't he?).

This isn't because Speakers of the House notoriously don't get to be president.  I think it's a fine enough launching pad in theory, and it has a prestige to it even if there's a lot of issues running the House and making a bid for the White House.  The problem is that the next Speaker is going to have it quite rough, not just for 2016 but especially after the elections, especially if Hillary Clinton wins the White House or the Democrats take back the Senate.  A Speaker is going to have to compromise if Democratic control is somewhere in the checks-and-balances, but Paul Ryan is going to have to deal with a caucus that has seen that threatening to throw him out of office and destroy his position works.  After all, John Boehner proved that.  And the bigger problem after the election is that there will almost certainly be more Democrats in Congress come next January, and they are more-than-likely going to pick off moderates.  People like Mike Coffman, Cresent Hardy, and John Katko are more likely to be ousted than your average Tea Party candidate who has to worry about their primary more than their general.  The more moderates that get tossed out, the more meat behind a Tea Party threat-after all, Paul Ryan needs 218 votes to be Speaker, not his full conference, but it's doubtful that the Democrats will help someone whom they see as very conservative and out for one of their most prized programs (Medicare).  Ryan's position as Speaker isn't what will stop him (the national profile would in theory help him), but he's not the master of his own fate like if he were a senator or a governor, and can't run his conference the way a president runs a cabinet.  It's being Speaker for the next four years that will kill his chances at the Oval Office.  And even if he may be the hero today, giving up his life's dream for a job he clearly doesn't want is a pretty big bummer.  If I were him, knowing you only get to live once and realizing that his chances at Hillary in 2020 are better from the Ways and Means committee, I'd have turned it down and recommended a name of someone who wanted the position.  But I'm not cautious in the same way as Paul Ryan, and we'll see now if this was this was the risk worth waiting to take.

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