House Republicans need someone capable of leading them out of the carnage of the bloody civil war between the Tea Party–fueled revolutionaries and an establishment seen as too willing to compromise on conservative principles in the name of governing.
The answer is clear: Paul Ryan should be the next speaker of the House.
This isn't some counterintuitive opinion, by the way. Exiting House Speaker Boehner has asked Ryan to run. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who shocked Republicans by withdrawing from the speaker's race Thursday, says Ryan is his first choice for the job.
The only person who doesn't want Ryan to run is, well, Ryan. He said immediately after McCarthy dropped out that he wouldn't run for the job, reiterating the position he took when Boehner first announced his resignation last month. So, rank-and-file Republicans started trying to draft him Thursday afternoon. Ryan's spokesman, Brendan Buck, said "nothing has changed" Thursday night on Twitter, but pressure is mounting anyway. As well it should.
The Wisconsin Republican is the only person in the GOP Conference who excels at the four most important functions of a speaker: building a coalition within the party; translating the party's vision into an agenda; articulating that message in the media, and negotiating deals with the other side.
If Ryan won't stand for speaker, Republicans should vote for him on the floor anyway. His reluctance to seek it is all the more reason he would be acceptable to conservative base Republicans who don't trust power-seeking establishment types.
Ryan may be the party's only hope to break free of the cannibalistic cycle that forced Boehner to decide to quit and then ruined McCarthy's claim on the speaker's gavel.
Ryan wrote the "road map" for the House Republican majority
To understand Ryan's place within the Republican conference, you have to go back to the Tea Party revolution election of 2010. Ryan had released a "road map" for America's future that year that would have rewritten the tax code and slashed entitlement spending. Republicans were warned that it would cost them the midterm election; instead, they swept to victory.
That's not to say Ryan's view of the world won them the House. But they captured control with his plan for reshaping American government cleanly and clearly laid out on the table for opposition researchers, reporters, think tankers, and voters to pick through and criticize.
He was, at that moment, a folk hero for the incoming class of House Republicans. Ryan was well-regarded enough among conservative insiders that Mitt Romney made him the party's vice presidential pick in 2012. There have been bumps along the way for Ryan, whose budgets never perfectly pleased the slash-and-burn-minded extremists in the House Republican conference, but there's no question he has more credibility with the party's conservative "Freedom Caucus" than anyone else capable of attracting establishment support.
While Ryan has assiduously avoided running for elected party posts in the House, he's been an integral part of the GOP leadership team since Republicans took the House in 2011. First, he was the chairman in charge of writing budgets, a post from which he negotiated for spending and tax cuts with Senate Democrats and the White House. More recently, he moved over to the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which gives him authority over not just tax reform efforts but also Social Security and Medicare. All the while, he's worked with Republican leaders to keep the government running and sate the Tea Party wing.
Ultimately, both sides see him as a smart, principled conservative who can be trusted to pursue tax and entitlement cuts because he bears the scars of actually making the argument for the Republican agenda and putting it into action. Boehner often turned to him to sell unpopular decisions to raise the debt ceiling or fund the government, and Ryan took on the task even though it came at the price of some of his street cred with the burn-it-down caucus. He's an adult.
It's one thing to believe in the agenda; it's another to go out and sell it
Few members of the House ever become household names, but Ryan is as well-known as any of them among Americans with an interest in politics. He ran on a national ticket, appears on the Sunday television talk shows, and has been willing to articulate his vision for the Republican Party's future to almost anyone who will listen.
Boehner was a tremendous inside player who staved off insurrection for the past five years by outwitting his foes within the Republican Conference. He's likable and presentable on television, but the golf-obsessed, cigarette-smoking House speaker is a throwback to another era of House leaders who plied their trade only in the backrooms. The lesson lawmakers learned after Newt Gingrich resigned in 1998 is that a speaker could become too much of an outside player — and too interested in elevating his own profile — to keep the faith of the lawmakers who elected him. A television-era speaker could be a distraction or, at worst, an albatross for his members.
Three straight speakers — Denny Hastert, Nancy Pelosi, and Boehner — have emerged from the ward-heeler school of politics. They were masters of the inside game but uncomfortable with the outside game. And in another age, that would have been fine.
But today, there's too much scrutiny of Congress. A speaker has to be able to sell the agenda to party activists while making it palatable to a broader audience.
McCarthy illustrated that point with a major miscue in an interview with Fox News last week: He tied the House Benghazi Committee's investigation to Hillary Clinton's sagging poll numbers — essentially acknowledging the partisan political nature of the probe. It was a crisply wrapped gift for Clinton, and McCarthy cited the moment as harmful to his bid for the speakership.
Ryan's too masterful to make that kind of a mistake. He sells well, and the Republicans in Congress badly need a salesman to communicate the message that they've actually been winning on spending and tax policy.
Ryan's a conservative, but Democrats are willing to work with him
President Obama's lament about Boehner has been that he can't trust what Boehner says not because Boehner doesn't mean it but because he can't deliver on his promises. Boehner's gotten jerked around by his conference so much in debt-limit and budget debates that he's lost credibility with Senate Democrats and the White House.
"Left to his own devices, I think he would probably cut some kind of a deal. But after a while the president has to be, like, 'John’s okay, but there has to be a question of competence,’" an Obama adviser once said of Boehner. "You go through this a hundred times, and yeah, that does have an impact on a relationship."
Ryan, by contrast, managed the successful negotiation of the 2013 budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat. Their pact capped spending for two fiscal years without raising taxes. It was seen by some conservatives as too much of a capitulation to Democrats, but it passed the House on a 332-94 vote. Democrats may not like Ryan's ideas, but they believe he can deliver.
Give him anything he wants
If there's anything that can be confidently said about the spoiled-brat Republican Conference extremists, it's this: They have no idea what's best for them. And still, more of them are coming around to the conclusion that Ryan is the right person for the job.
Maybe if Ryan waits long enough, the hardline Freedom Caucus will come to want him to take charge. Maybe he could extract promises from them, reversing the leverage within the Republican Conference. Short of that, it's understandable why he doesn't want the job. The Freedom Caucus and like-minded lawmakers have held Republican leaders hostage to their agenda.
Ryan hasn't framed his reluctance that way. He's said he wants to stay as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, that he doesn't want to be a party leader. He'd have to spend time away from his family to raise money to keep a majority that seems intent on self-immolating.
But if House Republicans could find a moment of clarity, they would give in to any demand he makes and elect him speaker. He's the one who developed their agenda, took the lead in promoting it, and used it as the basis for forcing Democrats to cut taxes and spending. Paul Ryan is the only one with the juice to lead the House Republicans. And if he can't do it, well, then probably no one can.