What Paul Ryan has done is very smart: He’s set up a game where if he doesn’t take the speakership, it’s only because he’s proven that no one in their right mind should want the speakership.
In context, Ryan’s conditions — endorsements from all Republican caucuses, rules changes that make it much harder to challenge a speaker midterm, and a lighter travel and fundraising schedule — verge on the ridiculous. He’s demanding the House Freedom Caucus give up its power to do to him what it did to John Boehner even as he promises to be less accommodating than John Boehner.
The idea of the House Freedom Caucus is that the House should be run more, well, freely — their critique of Boehner is that he centralized power in ways that stopped House Republicans from carrying out the conservative will of their people, and their proposed rules changes would decentralize power away from the speaker. But now Ryan is saying he will only take the job if the House Freedom Caucus endorses his effort to further centralize power — a betrayal of everything they stand for.
"What Paul Ryan is asking for is even more power and less responsibility," Rep. Tim Huelskamp told the National Review. That’s basically right.
You can read Ryan’s demands two ways, and both of them may be right. One reading is that he actually doesn’t want to be speaker, so he’s drafted conditions that ensure he won’t actually have to be speaker. Given that Ryan firmly and repeatedly refused to run for the position and only reconsidered after massive pressure from his colleagues, that seems the likeliest explanation — these conditions let Ryan avoid the speakership but put the blame on the House Freedom Caucus.
The other way to read the demands is Ryan is trying to split the House Freedom Caucus by testing what their insurgency was really about in the first place. Boehner, though a well-liked figured in the conference, wasn’t considered an ideological warrior in the way Ryan is. While some conservatives believe Ryan has been tainted by fame and establishment acceptance in recent years — they liked Ryan before he was cool, man — there are plenty who still idolize the man who reoriented the Republican Party around budgets that privatize Medicare, block grant Medicaid, and take a chainsaw to discretionary spending. Many of them might have opposed Boehner without ever expecting him to resign — they wanted to be heard by the regime, not to overturn it. Like the dog that caught the car, some of them may not even really be sure what a good-enough outcome of their insurgency would be, and they may be looking for a way out; Ryan is giving them that way.
But Ryan could find himself with a bit of a dog-that-caught-the-car problem, too. He’s demanding across-the-board endorsements from major Republican caucuses. "If I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve," Ryan told reporters. Anything less, he said, and "I’ll be happy to stay where I am at the Ways and Means Committee."
The problem is that even if Ryan gets the job, he won’t be a truly unifying figure. He will have steamrolled the House Freedom Caucus, and he’ll still have to carry out all the divisive tasks that have so ruined Boehner’s reputation. Ryan will have to pass a debt ceiling bill, and he’ll have to pass spending bills that keep the government open, and he’ll have to tell conservatives that the fights they want to pick often aren’t fights they can win.
Tea Party conservatives were frequently angry at Boehner, but they weren’t really disappointed in him — they didn’t see him as truly one of them, and they hadn’t given up anything to power his ascent. With Ryan, however, the disappointment will curdle into betrayal — he was one of them, he was the best of them, and they gave him extraordinary concessions just to take the job. When he turns out to be a lot like Boehner on substance — an absolute inevitability — the backlash will be fierce.
Ryan should hope he doesn't get the job. The problem for House Republicans is that if Ryan doesn't get the job, he will have shown no one else should want the job, either.