Why the speakership suits Paul Ryan just fine, for now

The House speaker rejected any 'draft Ryan for president' movement because it was unrealistic, divisive, and because he still has unfinished business in Congress.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan finishes a news conference at the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday. He ruled himself out of the Republican presidential race once and for all, after speculation that he could emerge as the GOP nominee if there's a contested Republican convention.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s definitive refusal to accept a possible draft nomination in a contested convention may disappoint some Republicans. But removing his hat from the ring makes perfect sense – both for the party, and for his own prospects as a potential presidential candidate some day, political observers say.

On Tuesday, Representative Ryan of Wisconsin emphatically rejected the “draft Ryan” idea, repeatedly floated by establishment Republicans who fear defeat if one of the primary-race leaders, Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, becomes the nominee. The hope was that the speaker – young, optimistic, conservative, and a former vice presidential candidate – could ride to the rescue as a unifying white knight.

But that’s as much of a fairy tale as it sounds. Were the speaker to attempt that, he would almost surely be knocked from his steed by supporters of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz, who are favored by about 70 percent of Republican primary voters, says John Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Not only that, he would fuel the division that already exists.

A contested convention, which now appears more likely given Trump’s steep climb to 1,237 delegates, “is already going to be a tough fight between Cruz and Trump,” explains Mr. Pitney. “But nominating someone who did not take part in the campaign could be extremely divisive, and that’s not something Paul Ryan wants to be.”

Indeed, the speaker made exactly that point at his short but emphatic press conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill.

“I simply believe that if you want to be the nominee — to be the president — you should actually run for it,” said Ryan. “I chose not to. Therefore, I should not be considered. Period. I just think it would be wrong to go any other way.”

He backed that up by urging convention rule-makers to allow only those who competed in the GOP primaries and caucuses to be eligible for the nomination. Besides, Ryan will be one of the convention co-chairs, and for that, he has said, he needs to remain as neutral as Switzerland.

The last time someone who had not participated in primaries won a presidential nomination was 1968, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the Democratic presidential race too late to campaign. The country was in turmoil over race riots and the Vietnam War, and so was the Democratic party – compounded by the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy just two months before the convention.

Humphrey relied on party bosses and others to help round up delegate votes. His securing of the nomination caused a great deal of internal dissent in the party, says Pitney. It led to reforms that moved away from nomination by party elites to today’s primary and caucus system.

Given the policy-and-ideas man that he is, Ryan’s more sensible role is the one that he’s outlined, observers say – using this year to draw up an agenda to show voters what Republicans might accomplish if they win the White House. 

The speaker is aiming to unveil a five-point agenda before the July convention that details policy prescriptions. Presumably, the eventual nominee can use it as a crib sheet, turning at least some of its points into legislation if he wins.

If the speaker can follow through on his promise to allow the right wing of his House caucus more input in decision making, it could help unify the party and improve the chances of his agenda becoming law, says Matthew Green, an expert on the speakership at Catholic University in Washington.

“You get everybody together, you work out a compromise, Congress looks better, you have a positive agenda. It’s not easy, but that is one path forward for Speaker Ryan,” particularly if he wants to pursue the presidency at some point, says Mr. Green.

Right now, adds Green, Ryan can help Republicans by continuing to put his youthful face and positive attitude forward in the media – which he is using much more than his predecessor John Boehner did. He’s also turning out to be a lucrative fundraiser for the GOP.

“He’s an effective spokesperson for the party, and he could work very well with a presumptive nominee,” Green says.

Depending, of course, on who the nominee is. Trump would be highly problematic for Ryan, who has condemned the billionaire’s most controversial comments and whose immigration and trade policies directly clash with the speaker’s views.

In that case, Ryan could potentially use his five-point agenda as a way to insulate his members from a Trump downdraft in November, though if Trump were to go down in a wave election – as early polls hint is possible – that insulation could prove threadbare.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Ryan is having a very hard time corralling his right wing House members. He has not been able to get their buy-in on a budget, for instance.

Still, at this point, Ryan has chosen the better path by staying out of a possible contested convention brawl. 

“What’s the better alternative?” asks Green. “Either he keeps his dignity and offers an agenda and maybe in four years his party will turn to him, or he throws his hat in now and tries to reunite a party that has been disintegrating from the top down.”

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