Regardless of whether Rep. Paul Ryan decides to declare himself a candidate for Speaker of the House sometime this week, his political future will likely sustain some real damage – and there is nothing he can do to avoid it.
The Wisconsin Republican, not even two years removed from being the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, had seemingly established a clear path for himself. As Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, he dreamed of overhauling the federal tax code. It’s a massive undertaking and one that, if successful, would chart the course for much of the U.S. economy for a generation and cement his reputation as an effective and capable legislator.
The next step, whether in 2020 or 2024, would be another run at the White House, this time as the candidate at the top of the ticket.
The unexpected resignation of House Speaker John Boehner last month, however, has changed everything.
The Republican majority is fractured, with a hard core of about 40 members of the “Freedom Caucus” consistently opposing anything that smacks of compromise.
The House is currently all but ungovernable. The Republican majority is fractured, with a hard core of about 40 members of the “Freedom Caucus” consistently opposing anything that smacks of compromise with the Obama administration, and mounting rebellion after rebellion on the House floor, forcing Boehner into the embarrassing position of having to withdraw bills that he had believed he could pass.
Last month, seeing that he was likely facing another series of difficult legislative battles within his own conference, and facing the threat of a vote to oust him from the Speaker’s chair, he finally decided to step down. The member who looked like Boehner’s obvious successor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Majority Leader, couldn’t muster the support of the Freedom Caucus either, and withdrew himself from the running.
For many in the GOP, the next logical person to look to was Ryan, who has never served in House leadership, and who repeatedly said that he was not interested in being Speaker. His reluctance notwithstanding, a large element of the GOP conference believe that Ryan is the only member with the credibility on both sides of the Republican divide to win.
Ryan is reportedly in discussions with the GOP conference’s right wing – essentially demanding that they promise not to do to him what they did to Boehner as a condition of accepting the job. However, by all accounts, the Freedom Caucus wants to enshrine in the rules of the House the ability to do to any new Speaker exactly what it did to Boehner – block initiatives they dislike, scuttle compromise, etc.
There is no end of commentary in the political press about how damaging a stint as House Speaker would be to Ryan’s presidential aspirations. The bottom line is that as Speaker, Ryan would be responsible for getting things done in a government where Republicans control the Congress and the Democrats control the White House.
It’s a situation that makes compromise an essential element of any major deal, and among the more fringe members of the GOP conference, who have the luxury to pursue ideological purity, compromise is a mortal sin. For a speaker, refusal to compromise is practically a disqualification.
In the end, a Ryan speakership would inevitably result in him having to cut deals, whether with the White House or House Democrats that would be seen as apostasy to the Freedom Caucus. And when the day came, and Speaker Ryan wanted to lay down the gavel and make a run for the White House, every deal he cut or principle he bent would come back to haunt him in attacks from the conservative elements of the Party.
If that were the end of the story, it would be easy to see what Ryan ought to do: turn and run from anybody who approaches him offering the Speakership.
However, it’s not that simple. Consider the possibility that Ryan declines, and throws the Speaker race into even more chaos than it’s already in. More than a dozen House members have suggested that they are open to running for Speaker if Ryan bows out.
The next Speaker could conceivably be determined by a bruising series of votes within the conference, in which the future leader cuts deals with small factions for their support, resulting in a Speaker who in the end is so beholden to the different GOP factions that he or she has an even harder time managing the House than Boehner did.
The House Republican conference falls into an endless cycle of self-defeating internal battles that brings major legislation to a halt and impedes the ability of the federal government to do its job. It could even further damage a Republican brand that has suffered more than its share of bad press in recent years.
Under those circumstances, it would be difficult for Ryan – seen as the man who could have saved the House GOP from itself – to come away looking blameless. When his party needed him, the critics will say, he didn’t answer the call. Instead, he stayed in his perch at the Ways and Means Committee, hoping to preserve his shot at the White House, even as his GOP self-destructed in front of him.
That’s not a narrative a presidential candidate wants to have to push back against, but if Ryan refuses the speakership, it’s all but certain that his unwillingness to serve would come back to haunt him in a future presidential run.
For Ryan right now, there are literally no good choices.