I can hear the groans already. Didn't Paul Ryan practically beg Hugh Hewitt to leave his name out of any contested convention chatter just this morning? After all, he said, people who want to be president should run for the position; Ryan took a pass on 2016 for a reason. He doesn't want the job. And yet, the whispers persist. Remember, Ryan also insisted he wanted no part of the House Speakership, didn't he? And today he's, ahem, House Speaker Paul Ryan. Perhaps his demurrals shouldn't be taken at face value, some will argue. I disagree for reasons I'll explain momentarily, but first, here's the latest Ryan-for-President scuttlebutt, which builds off of Karl Rove's much-discussed "fresh face" remarks last week. Via Politico:
On the eve of the Wisconsin primaries, top Republicans are becoming increasingly vocal about their long-held belief that Speaker Paul Ryan will wind up as the nominee, perhaps on the fourth ballot at a chaotic Cleveland convention. One of the nation’s best-wired Republicans, with an enviable prediction record for this cycle, sees a 60 percent chance of a convention deadlock and a 90 percent chance that delegates turn to Ryan — ergo, a 54 percent chance that Ryan, who’ll start the third week of July as chairman of the Republican National Convention, will end it as the nominee. “He’s the most conservative, least establishment member of the establishment,” the Republican source said. “That’s what you need to be.” Ryan, who’s more calculating and ambitious than he lets on, is running the same playbook he did to become speaker: saying he doesn’t want it, that it won’t happen. In both cases, the maximum leverage is to not want it — and to be begged to do it. He and his staff are trying to be as Shermanesque as it gets. Ryan repeated his lack of interest Monday morning in an interview from Israel with radio host Hugh Hewitt. Of course in this environment, saying you don’t want the job is the only way to get it. If he was seen to be angling for it, he’d be stained and disqualified by the current mess.
Well then. Though I'm quite positive that some GOP powerbrokers would be positively giddy over the prospect of a reluctant Ryan stepping in at the eleventh hour and magnanimously accepting the party's nomination in Cleveland, this piece reads more like a House of Cards rip-off script than a window into reality. Yes of course Ryan is ambitious, and every powerful politician is calculating to some extent. But having met with him on several occasions, including fairly recently as part of a private gaggle of right-leaning journalists, I don't believe Ryan is remotely capable of the Underwoodesque cynicism implied in this story. When he said he didn't want the Speakership, I think he genuinely meant it. It's in many ways a thankless job these days, setting aside the prevailing sense that he's navigated it rather well thus far. It was only when figures from warring factions of the bitterly-divided party openly pleaded with him to take one for the team and step up that he finally acceded to others' wishes and relented. Given the acrimonious nature of what has been an exhausting and dispiriting GOP presidential primary, any discussion of nominating someone who hasn't spent months on the trail engaged in the hard work of earning votes would understandably infuriate supporters of the remaining candidates. If nothing else, 2016 has been the cycle of the outraged outsider. Millions of participants in both parties' primaries have raised disgusted middle fingers at Washington, DC. If Republicans cast aside those results, and the message they carry, it could shatter the party beyond the already-anticipated wreckage that will arise either from Trump being nominated, or being denied the nomination. If it's not Trump, it should almost certainly be Cruz, maybe with Kasich along for the ride. Granted, Paul Ryan is seen as widely-respected and sufficiently conservative among rank-and-file Republicans, and is well-liked by the public writ large. Discussing his name within the context of a post-2016 rebuilding effort with an eye toward 2020 would make plenty of sense. But given his "insider" status (by virtue of the very nature of his title) and his record on immigration (perhaps the hottest policy flashpoint of the GOP race thus far), any and all 'Ryan 2016' talk strikes me as deeply counter-productive. Based on his consistent comments, it seems he would agree. Today's Politico story leans heavily on Ryan's recent speech about the sorry state of American politics as evidence that he's quietly angling for a job he claims he doesn't want:
Ryan, 46, a likable Midwesterner, could look too tempting to resist as Republicans finally focus on a beatable Hillary Clinton. He got rave reviews for a “State of American Politics” speech on March 23 (hashtag on his podium: “#ConfidentAmerica,” the title of his high-minded manifesto at the Library of Congress in December). In the “State of Politics” address, Ryan offered himself as the anti-Trump (without mentioning The Don): “Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults.”...A Ryan friend chuckled when we asked if he wants it, and pointed to last month’s address: “That was somebody who was laying out the speech that, in most cases, you’d give six months before you announce you’re going to run – when you’re going around the country, raising money for your leadership PAC.”
Alternate theory -- again, partially informed by Ryan's attitude and tone from our recent meeting: This address wasn't setting the stage for a dramatic convention play. It was simply Ryan's way of attempting to present a positive, forward-looking Republican message that might cut through the ugly noise of the presidential primary for a news cycle or two. Trump fans want him to rally behind the man they see as the party's presumptive nominee (Trump often references their Trump-initiated phone conversation as evidence that Congressional leadership is aligning with him). Trump critics, meanwhile, want Ryan to more explicitly condemn the controversial, polarizing frontrunner. Ryan has generally avoided stirring the pot in either direction, instead working diligently to craft an agenda for House Republicans, while championing a Bizarro World political reality in which substance and thoughtful discourse are prized. I'll leave you with that aforementioned speech, the content and 'sound' of which is jarringly incongruous with what the 2016 circus has offered voters. This strikes me not as the manifesto of a man who's angling for the presidency he silently covets, but as the supplication of a leader who is distressed and demoralized by the garbage heap that is modern politics, and who's using his considerable platform to at least try to make a positive difference: