The great subplot of the moment, with [mc_name name=’Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’M001165′ ] stepping aside from the race to replace [mc_name name=’Rep. John Boehner (R-OH)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’B000589′ ] and become the 54th person to serve as Speaker of the House, is whether Boehner and others in the GOP caucus can convince Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan to step up and take the job. Ryan continues to insist he does not want to be Speaker and is quite happy running Ways and Means (which has been his ambition since he entered the House 16 years ago), but with a bunch of people ([mc_name name=’Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’C001076′ ], [mc_name name=’Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’W000806′ ], [mc_name name=’Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’W000796′ ]) seeking the job and the caucus almost as deeply divided as it was in the epic 1855 battle over the Speakership at the dawn of the Republican Party, there has been muttering from many corners that Ryan may be the only person acceptable enough to enough different factions to gain the 218 votes needed to become Speaker. Boehner and possibly other party bigwigs are appealing to Ryan to step up and take the job despite his objections. But would that be a good thing?
On the plus side, to start with, Ryan would be the best possible public face for the House GOP. He’s the best-known Republican in the House, possibly including Boehner, after being the party’s nominee for Vice President in 2012. He’s reasonably young (45), intelligent, handsome, articulate, diligent, and earnest. He represents a traditionally Democratic-leaning (though currently R+3) district in Wisconsin, a battleground state that has never produced a Speaker of the House and has put only one candidate – Ryan himself – on a major-party national ticket. As a Jack Kemp disciple and a policy wonk, Ryan understands the language both of green-eyeshade fiscal conservatism and hope-growth-and-opportunity supply-side conservatism, yet he’s also a reliable pro-lifer. Ryan is also seen as a good guy and an honest broker, trusted by most everyone on the Hill, not so much for his ability to be a dependable ally as his ability to work with people. Thus, the sense that every faction in the House GOP could live with him even if they don’t wholly agree with everywhere he would like to go. And the fact that Ryan very publicly does not want the job suggests that, if he took it, he’d be choosing to place the interests of the party over his own personal ambitions.
But there are also downsides. Some conservatives, more or less the Trump-ish faction of the Right, mistrust Ryan’s policy goals because he’s in favor of path-to-legalization immigration reform, free trade, and an internationalist foreign policy. Others who are more in line with Ryan’s principles and goals have the same questions about him that linger over [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ] and, in a different context, over Chief Justice Roberts – whether this polite, intelligent, reasonable and eloquent spokesman for our ideas really has the spine to play the stubborn bad cop and sacrifice some of his own reputation for reasonableness when it’s necessary to get to the dirty, knife-fighting business of brinksmanship with ruthless progressives of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid variety. Ryan has gotten along with Boehner, and with a lot of Democrats in his district and family, and voted for things like Medicare Part D and the auto bailout, in large part because he’s been unwilling to be the skunk at the garden party. The fact that Ryan has never been willing to do the dirty work to seek out either the Speakership or the Presidency suggests a virtue of character but a deficit of political ruthlessness of this sort. Ryan is likely to seek much-needed common ground between House moderates, the Freedom Caucus, the Senate leadership of [mc_name name=’Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000355′ ], and Senate hardliners of the [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] variety; whether that exists, and whether he has the necessary bloody-mindedness to impose it on them, is another story.
Moreover, it remains unclear whether Ryan will ultimately bend to the pressure and take the job even if friends like Boehner and Mitt Romney (who has stayed publicly noncommittal) beg him to. His personal reasons for not wanting the job should not be underestimated. Ryan has three young children, whom he already doubtless sees less of than he would like; he’s also devoted to his daily workouts and enjoys hunting and fishing back home in Wisconsin. The demands of the Speakership would obviously intrude on his life, of which we all only get one. He’s also somewhat haunted by the fact that his father died of a heart attack at 55, and the Speaker of the House is perhaps the most needlessly stressful position in Washington, one with many anxieties and few joys. Kemp, Ryan’s mentor and hero, was well-known for often declining to pursue higher positions that his fans wanted him to seek. Ryan may well feel that life is simply too short to be Speaker of the House. It’s far easier to foresee yourself as influential and long-lasting as Ways and Means Chairman (the most powerful committee in Congress). Consider the numbers. The House has had 53 different Speakers in its history (61 overall, because a number of them have served as Speaker two or three times):
22 of the 53 lasted less than 2 years.
27 lasted less than 3 years.
35 lasted less than 4 years.
43 lasted less than 5 years.
None lasted more than 10 consecutive years (Tip O’Neill was closest, just a few days short of a decade). Two of the ten Speakers to serve more than five years (Sam Rayburn and Henry Clay) did so over three different tenures. This is in some ways a reassuring fact – the House is not dysfunctional today in some unique way, but is rather acting more or less the way the Founding Fathers envisioned it, raucous and vibrant and full of populist enthusiasms. But it’s not an encouraging picture for a man considering wagering his career on the Speakership.
House Republicans might not have a better answer than Paul Ryan right now, and maybe he will accept that call. But he’s not an ideal answer, and there’s significant reasons to think he may not answer the call even if it grows to a crescendo.