Why Even Paul Ryan Cannot Save Republicans

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has repeatedly said he will not seek the gavel. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has repeatedly said he will not seek the gavel. Molly Riley/AP

Paul Ry­an left Wash­ing­ton last week with a de­cision to make.

Even as the House Ways and Means chair­man re­peatedly de­clared he would not seek the speak­er’s gavel, rank-and-file mem­bers were re­lent­less. House Speak­er John Boehner ap­proached him. Many mem­bers dropped his name on cable news and hailed him as the only man for the job.

Over­sight Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jason Chaf­fetz told re­port­ers that if Ry­an jumped in, he’d hap­pily step aside from his own planned run. It cre­ated an il­lu­sion in Wash­ing­ton that Ry­an is single­han­dedly hold­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party back from re­uni­fic­a­tion.

But even Ry­an may not be able to save his party from it­self.

The most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives—those who identi­fy them­selves as part of the Free­dom Caucus—are not look­ing for a policy vis­ion­ary nor a lead­er to emerge from a speak­er’s race. They are look­ing for a ma­gi­cian—a speak­er who jams through bal­anced budgets, holds the line on the debt ceil­ing, and de­funds Planned Par­ent­hood with a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent in the White House. And no one, not even Ry­an, is cap­able of be­ing that kind of polit­ic­al uni­corn.

“This is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent kettle of fish,” says John Fee­hery, a GOP strategist who served as a spokes­man for former Speak­er Den­nis Hastert. “I think Paul is widely re­spec­ted by most Re­pub­lic­ans, and even the Free­dom Caucus guys like him, but I don’t know if any­one is go­ing to be pure enough.”

Ideo­lo­gic­ally, there may be little space between Ry­an and con­ser­vat­ives, but there are deep di­vi­sions between Ry­an and the con­fer­ence on tac­tics.

“I think he can unite the con­fer­ence as well as any­body can,” says Rep. Tom Cole, a mem­ber close with Boehner who has en­cour­aged Ry­an to run. “He is also prag­mat­ic, so if you want someone who is go­ing to play fast and loose with keep­ing the gov­ern­ment open or de­fault­ing on the debt, you are go­ing to have some dis­agree­ments.”

As Budget chair­man, Ry­an earned the re­spect of some of his party’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers in the early days of the tea party by au­thor­ing waste-slash­ing budgets. Styl­ist­ic­ally, Ry­an’s up­held many of those re­la­tion­ships and he’s earned a repu­ta­tion of be­ing a frank and hon­est ne­go­ti­at­or. But when it comes to earn­ing the ire of con­ser­vat­ives, Ry­an’s been there too.

Re­wind to 2013. Ry­an had just craf­ted a bi­par­tis­an budget deal with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Patty Mur­ray that re­duced the de­fi­cit but also re­laxed sev­er­al se­quest­ra­tion spend­ing caps. While Boehner ap­plauded the ef­fort and many Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress voted to get it over the fin­ish line, con­ser­vat­ive groups like Her­it­age Ac­tion and Club For Growth came out swinging against it. In the end, 169 Re­pub­lic­ans voted for it and 62 Re­pub­lic­ans voted “no” in the House.

Earli­er this year, Ry­an’s con­fer­ence was once again di­vided over his ef­forts to grant the pres­id­ent fast-track au­thor­ity on a his­tor­ic trade agree­ment. The bill gave Con­gress a voice, but only an up-or-down vote. For months, Ry­an or­ches­trated listen­ing ses­sions to at­tract sup­port for the trade deal and edu­cate mem­bers on what they were con­sid­er­ing, and he lob­bied them in one-on-one meet­ings. The ex­er­cise re­af­firmed Ry­an’s abil­ity to con­vince a large swath of his con­fer­ence, but Ry­an was not able to unite every­one. Some con­ser­vat­ives dis­missed the deal on the basis that it em­powered Pres­id­ent Obama. Oth­ers re­jec­ted it be­cause of con­ser­vat­ive news re­ports in­dic­at­ing that the trade deal was full of changes to im­mig­ra­tion policies. Even Ry­an could not quell all those con­cerns.

Those in the es­tab­lish­ment see Ry­an as the most likely uni­fi­er. They point to his ac­com­plish­ments in Con­gress and his un­canny abil­ity to ex­plain and con­vert mem­bers on com­plic­ated policy pro­pos­als. But the Free­dom Caucus may not be any more will­ing to swal­low polit­ic­al real­ity with Ry­an at the helm than they were with Boehner as speak­er.

Already, mem­bers are call­ing on speak­er can­did­ates to make a slew of im­possible prom­ises. Mem­bers want the next speak­er to prom­ise not to pun­ish mem­bers who vote against the party line in the Rules Com­mit­tee or on the floor. They want a lead­er who doesn’t lead, but merely fol­lows their dir­ec­tions.

“My con­cern is the same with all the po­ten­tial speak­ers. I want a less dic­tat­ori­al ap­proach to op­er­a­tions in the House,” says Rep. Mo Brooks, a Re­pub­lic­an from Alabama. “I want there to be more re­spect for in­di­vidu­al mem­bers, and I ab­hor a pro­cess where mem­bers who are in good faith, vot­ing as they be­lieve is ne­ces­sary and best for our coun­try, are pun­ished by the lead­er­ship.”

When asked if he thought Ry­an would be any dif­fer­ent than Boehner or Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy, who dropped out of the speak­er’s race last week, Rep. Dave Brat, an­oth­er mem­ber of the Free­dom Caucus, said “that’s a huge ques­tion.” Brat said that even if the next speak­er can make the House work again, the Sen­ate rules also need to be re­formed so that Demo­crats can­not block con­ser­vat­ive le­gis­la­tion us­ing the fili­buster.

“We’ve got a prob­lem,” says Brat, who un­seated former Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor in a GOP primary last year. “Re­pub­lic­ans own both cham­bers.”

Rep. Dav­id Sch­weikert, a con­ser­vat­ive from Ari­zona, says the me­dia misses the point when it pre­tends that Ry­an will bring the con­fer­ence to­geth­er.

“It’s not about the man. There is a fix­a­tion in the press, be­cause it is in­tel­lec­tu­ally lazy, about the per­son and not the policies and pro­ced­ures,” Sch­weikert says.

Rep. Justin Amash, a found­ing mem­ber of the Free­dom Caucus, says that “Paul Ry­an would be a more ac­cept­able can­did­ate than the cur­rent lead­er­ship team primar­ily be­cause he is not in the cur­rent lead­er­ship team,” but that to act as if Ry­an is a reneg­ade out­sider is to ig­nore his rap­id rise from wonk­ish policy scribe to the GOP’s vice pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate.

Ry­an might very well win the speak­er’s elec­tion if he were to run, but the second he holds the speak­er’s gavel, he will be­come a lead­er. And in today’s Re­pub­lic­an Party, the speak­er is en­emy No. 1, no mat­ter who he or she is.

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