Why Paul Ryan Will Dodge the GOP Presidential Snake Pit
Policy + Politics

Why Paul Ryan Will Dodge the GOP Presidential Snake Pit

© Yuri Gripas / Reuters

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has made little headway in dampening down speculation that he might step in this summer and save his party from itself if the Republican convention deadlocks over a presidential nominee. 

Ryan’s repeated denials in wading into a convention snake pit with billionaire Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the event of a delegate stalemate are emphatic.

 “I’m not that person,” Ryan, 46, said last week during an interview with conservative radio personality Hugh Hewitt, disavowing interest in the presidential nomination.  “I’d like to think my face is somewhat fresh, but I’m not for this conversation. I think you need to run for president if you’re going to run for president, and I’m not running for president. Period, end of story.”

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Ryan’s protests might have sounded even more convincing if he hadn’t repeatedly denied interest in succeeding Republican John Boehner as House speaker late last year to spend more time with his family – before reluctantly accepting a draft from House conservatives last October.

For now, however, staying clear of the explosive presidential campaign seems the most likely strategy for the former House Budget and Ways and Means Committee chair. Instead of muddying the GOP presidential waters even more than they are now, Ryan is using a series of high profile speeches, overseas trips and policy declarations to promote a party image that he hopes will prevail over time.

Even if Trump’s and Cruz’s slash and burn styles leave the Republicans’ ambitions to regain control of the White House in tatters, Ryan sees a vital need to elevate the tone of the debate and position the party for a better future down the road.

In contrast to what he sees unfolding on the campaign trail, Ryan has urged his party to take the high ground on policy – especially poverty, economic and immigration issues -- and avoid the personal attacks and fear mongering that have become the hallmark of the GOP presidential campaign.

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As The New York Times described on Monday, Ryan “is creating a personality and policy alternative to run alongside the presidential effort” – especially if Trump or Cruz wins the nomination.

Ryan will play a parallel role to the presidential campaign, looking for ways to protect the congressional Republicans’ current majorities through tireless campaigning and fundraising across the country. And by virtue of being the highest elected official in the House, Ryan will be chair of the national convention in Cleveland in mid-July. He has said that as convention chair, he will remain neutral, acting as a dispassionate umpire calling the balls and strikes.

 “His efforts since the start of his speakership are much bigger than Trump, or even 2016 – they're about showing what the party can be and, frankly, acknowledging that we have a deeply divided party that needs to be repaired,” according to a source close to Ryan. “There’s no reason to wait until after the election to start trying to unify the party behind specific ideas and a positive vision.

“We [will] take our conservative principles, apply them to the problems of the day, show people that the real solutions, [and] run on those solutions. And that’s what we’re doing in the House,” Ryan said last month in an interview with a Wisconsin radio station. “That’s what I’m working with House Republicans . . . to lay out there. We’re going to lay it out before the convention.”

But there’s no love lost between Ryan and Trump, whose controversial statements calling for the barring of Muslims from this country, the mass deportation of more than 11 million illegal immigrants, and the dismantling of free trade agreements have all been met with stiff rejoinders from the House Speaker. Trump frequently takes pot shots at the 2012 GOP presidential ticket of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Ryan, which lost to President Obama. Trump describes the GOP campaign as a “disaster.”

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While Ryan and his aides argue for why the Speakers’ future turns on developing a compelling conservative message to preserve GOP majorities in the House and Senate, skeptics see a politician who might not be able to resist the siren song of the 2016 presidential nomination – especially if many in his party turn to him at the last minute to be the standard bearer.

“I think Ryan would take it in an instant if given the opportunity,” Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist with the University of Virginia, said on Monday. “Ryan isn't going to commit political suicide. He will only go for the prize if there is a clear path. He can accept a draft reluctantly--after a case of the public vapors. ‘Who, me? Gracious goodness, where are my smelling salts!?’"

Ron Bonjean a former House and Senate GOP communications expert, agrees that Ryan may be positioning himself for a last-minute entry into the race if the GOP convention delegates deadlock over Trump and Cruz and nobody else – including Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- can surge to the top.

"The unveiling of the visionary speeches and videos is extremely well timed to coincide with the run up to the Republican convention,” Bonjean, a public policy adviser, said on Monday. “On the one hand, it can be used by his colleagues for their own races back home.  On the other hand, if the presidential nomination ballot goes into multiple rounds, the fact that he offered a thoughtful policy platform along with his name being so widely praised could easily propel RNC delegates to nominate him."

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Ryan, a conservative policy wonk whose past budget plans calling for major reforms of entitlements have frequently drawn fire from the Democrats and the White House, is largely a creature of Capitol Hill. The Janesville, Wisconsin, Republican was elected to the House in 1998 at the age of 28, and for much of his career he has been viewed as an intellectual leader.

He was perfectly content in his roles as head of the Budget Committee and then the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and had high hopes of presiding over a major rewriting of the federal tax code this year before he was pressed into service as House Speaker. He projected a youthful image as Romney’s running mate in 2012, but never seemed to display much enthusiasm for his role as the vice presidential running-mate.

Ryan quickly took himself out of the running for president in 2016, and as things worked out, that was a shrewd move. Ryan never would have been able to withstand Trump’s personal attacks, and the two see things very differently on immigration reform and entitlement reform. But now with growing uncertainty over whether Trump or Cruz will arrive at the convention with a majority of delegates to claim the nomination, some senior Republicans can’t resist talking about Ryan heading the ticket this fall.

Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster who worked for Rubio before he dropped out of the campaign, said in an interview yesterday, “I obviously take the Speaker at his word . . . but I do think he would be a very attractive candidate to a lot of delegates at the Cleveland convention this summer.”

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Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, cautioned that Ryan would be walking into a hornets’ nest and could jeopardize his long-term career by challenging Trump or Cruz assuming one or the other shows up at the GOP convention with 80 percent or more of the 1,237 delegates needed for nomination.

If Trump or Cruz are denied the nomination as delegates turn to a politician who never won a single delegate this year, it will be catastrophic and, “You’re going to have Cleveland making Chicago 1968 look like a picnic,” Ornstein said in an interview.

Ornstein said that if Ryan sought to gain the presidential nomination, he would immediately be denounced by many Trump and Cruz supporters as “the tool of the establishment.” And if he somehow managed to wrest the nomination away from the current frontrunners, “if he loses, he goes back to the House in a much, much weaker position – and probably with his political career in tatters.”

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“So I think that if you are rational and logical Paul Ryan, and on this I would bet he is, you don’t want to do this,” Ornstein said. I suppose you could weave a scenario where they go to a convention, and they go through five, six, eight, ten ballots and they’re not getting anywhere. But that is such a stretch that you almost hesitate to bring it up as a scenario.”

John Zogby, another long-time pollster, largely agrees with Ornstein.

"There has to be a law somewhere that says you can only kill a guy once in any given year, Zogby said in an email. “Ryan relented and took the Speaker's job but he is suffering for it. I take him at his word. I truly believe he wants to be President, but 2016 is a great opportunity in the worst possible year. The party is a mess and he already has a ringside seat."