clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Paul Ryan isn't running for president. He's after something even bigger.

Paul Ryan, left, is now the most influential Republican in America, at least on domestic and economic policy.
Paul Ryan, left, is now the most influential Republican in America, at least on domestic and economic policy.
John Gress/Getty Images

Most politicians who can gin up presidential speculation do (see Gingrich, Newt). It means more reporters covering their speeches, more money for their PAC, more invitations to the Sunday shows. But Rep. Paul Ryan took himself out of the race early.

"After giving it a lot of thought, I've decided not to run for president," he said. "Our work at the House Ways and Means Committee over the next few years will be crucial to moving America forward, and my job as chairman deserves undivided attention."

In doing, Ryan showed he understands something most ambitious politicians don't. The real power in American politics resides in Congress, not in the presidency.

People say the president has the power to set the agenda, and it's true. But presidents only set agendas they think Congress might pass, or at least consider. The president leads — but only where he thinks Congress will follow.

It's Congress that writes bills and Congress that passes them. It's Congress that can spend money and declare war. Congress, with a sufficient majority, could govern aggressively without the president's cooperation — they simply need to overturn his vetoes.

Conversely, there's little the president can do without congressional cooperation. When the president proposes an agenda that Congress refuses to consider then, like the tree in the forest, no one really cares whether it makes a sound. Anyone remember the health-reform plan that was the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's 2006 State of the Union?

How the media lies about politics

The media tends to obscure this fact. We cover American politics like an episode of the West Wing — the main character is the president and everyone else is, at best, a supporting player. That's how you get bills like "Obamacare."

President Obama decided to do health reform because congressional Democrats wanted to do health reform. In 2008, when Obama was running, Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, held an event entitled "Prepare to Launch." It had a video of a rocket ship blasting off and everything. What he was launching was health reform. That meant Obama knew the powerful chair of the powerful committee that would be responsible for any policy that had to raise revenue wanted health reform atop the agenda.

On November 12th, just days after Obama was elected president, Baucus published a "white paper" detailing the health bill he wanted to see. Later, his committee drafted the bill that ultimately passed into law. The Affordable Care Act gets called Obamacare, but in truth, it's at least as much Baucuscare.

No member of Congress has understood the power of the institution to set the president's agenda in recent years as well as Ryan. His budget became the de facto policy platform of the Republican Party. Pretty much every GOP presidential candidate endorsed some form of it (Newt Gingrich began his campaign by trying to distance himself from Ryan's work, but he quickly realized his folly). It got Ryan named to Romney's ticket.

But the most telling — and most perceptive — line on Ryan's budget came from Grover Norquist. Speaking at the conservative confab CPAC in 2012, Norquist said, "We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget ... Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States."

The president's job, Norquist continued, "is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared."

Ryan doesn't want to be team captain. He wants to be the guy preparing the legislation the next Republican president will sign into law. In recent years, he got halfway there: as chair of the House Budget Committee, he came up with broad budgets that included the basic agenda the next Republican president would follow. He was GOP's Ideologist-in-Chief. But the Budget Committee isn't a particularly powerful committee. Ryan was thriving on the strength of his ideas and his skill in selling them. He didn't have much control over the process.

What Paul Ryan understands about power

Paul Ryan

Everyone just simmer down. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News)

But now Ryan's chair of the vastly more powerful House Ways and Means Committee (it's roughly the counterpart to the Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus ran). Now he has control over the process that will produce the key bills, as well. Combining the role Ryan has built in the party as Ideologist-in-Chief with the power of the House Ways and Means Committee almost instantly makes Ryan the most powerful Republican in the country when it comes to party's policy direction, particularly on economic and domestic policy.

Given that, it makes sense that Ryan pulled himself out of the race early. If Ryan was running for president in 2016 — or if Republicans even thought he might run for president in 2016 — they would assume his work at Ways and Means was really preparatory work on behalf of Ryan 2016. Worse, his fellow potential candidates would have to distance themselves from Ryan's ideas, as he would be a threat to them. But now Ryan can work to shape all their agendas simultaneously, and they will have to compete for his favor — they'll want both his endorsement and, if they win, his help.

Ryan has been better at understanding how much power ideas can have in American politics than pretty much any member of Congress in recent years. This shows that he's got a clear-eyed view of how much power congressional process holds, too. If he was running for president in such a crowded field, odds are that he probably wouldn't win — and, thus, neither would his ideas. But now that he's forsworn any interest in the presidency while making clear he's going to really use the power of the House Ways and Means Committee, no Republican will be able to win and govern without adopting Ryan's ideas.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of one of President George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.