It was fun to pretend that Paul Ryan was running a stealth campaign for the Republican nomination for president, modeled on the highly successful stealth campaign he ran for House speaker.
But I believe him when he says that he really, really, really won’t seek or accept the nomination.
I believe his campaign-esque speech laying out a vision of a less acrimonious Republican politics – and the slick campaign-ad-like video made from that speech, and his general positioning of himself as the antidote to Trumpism in the Republican Party – were never about trying to become the nominee at a contested convention.
I believe all of this because there’s another, simpler explanation for Paul Ryan’s shadow campaign. All this positioning has never been about 2016. It’s about 2017.
Take a moment and imagine that this garbage fire of an election is over. It’s January 2017, President Hillary Clinton is being inaugurated, and House Speaker Paul Ryan has become by far the most powerful figure in the Republican Party simply by continuing to sit where he is while all his rivals set themselves on fire.
By early next year, Ryan could be the only prominent establishment Republican whose reputation has not been destroyed through loss to Trump, supplication to Trump, defeat in a Senate race because Donald Trump is losing a landslide at the top of the ticket, or some other similarly horrible fate.
Alternatively, if Ted Cruz manages to grab the Republican nomination, Ryan would start 2017 in an even stronger position. Cruz would also lose badly to Clinton, the other non-Trump candidates for the nomination would still be humiliated, Senate Republicans would be pointing fingers at each other about who lost the majority, and Ryan wouldn’t need to compete with Cruz for the role of Republican standard-bearer after the election.
With the leadership of an entire political party about to fall into his lap through the self-destruction of everyone around him, Ryan realizes that he needs to start now on articulating a vision of what Republicans should do next, lest somebody else do it for him. We’ve all seen what’s happened since 2012, when Mitt Romney shocked Republicans by losing and nobody stepped into the vacuum with compelling instructions for the party about what to do next.
It’s good that Ryan is being proactive. Unfortunately, the vision he is laying out is not terribly interesting.
What are the apparent planks of Ryan’s vision for the party? One is that Republicans shouldn’t use Trump-style appeals to white-identity politics. A second is that Republicans should talk more nicely about poor people while cutting their benefits. A third is that Republicans should maintain their orthodoxy on free trade, free markets, and the need for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
You might recognize these principles as substantially identical to those espoused by Marco Rubio – and one key lesson from this campaign is that Republican voters have very little interest in Rubioism.
Ryan understands that he is about to be thrust into leadership of the Republican Party without ever seeking or receiving its presidential nomination. But he does not yet get that the party’s substantive policy agenda must change if its candidates hope to win a majority of voters without the appeals to protectionism, nationalism, and racism that are so compelling for Trump voters.