Paul Ryan looks a lot like a man who is running for president. He released something that looks a lot like a campaign ad. He took a trip to Israel and Egypt to burnish his foreign policy credentials. He claims he'll shortly be releasing policy proposals on replacing Obamacare and doing something about poverty.
And while he keeps saying he's not running, he's not saying he would refuse the nomination if he were selected. That's not a normal way to secure a presidential nomination, but it worked for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and it's clear that whomever the Republicans nominate in 2016, it won't be a "normal" nominating process.
While Ryan's odds of getting the nod are slim, it's by no means crazy of him to hope that a contested convention might turn to him, and it makes a lot of sense for him to lay the groundwork to the extent that he can.
If not Trump, who?
The fundamental strength of Ryan as a presidential contender is that he's not Donald Trump.
Huge swaths of the Republican Party and conservative movement leadership have decided that Trump is an unacceptable figure who will lead them to utter ruin. But to beat him they need to do more than stop him from securing a majority of pledged delegates; they need an alternative candidate. The most obvious alternative is Ted Cruz, who's in second place, but Republican leaders don't like Cruz either.
Indeed, on a personal level they probably have a bigger problem with Cruz than with Trump.
On the one hand, Cruz has established a public image as significantly more right-wing than other GOP leaders, which could hurt his electability. On the other hand, GOP leaders simply don't believe that Cruz is a more faithful steward of conservatism. They think he's a callow con artist who's manipulated grassroots conservatives in a way that does no good for the movement but does advance his personal ambitious.
This adds up to a situation in which there's a clear opportunity for a third man.
Ryan has been vetted
Of course, almost by definition there are lots of Republican Party elected officials who fit the broad criteria of being neither Trump nor Cruz. Indeed, due to the GOP's strong performance in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, the party has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of the kind of incumbent governors and senators who most often secure presidential nominations.
But there's a problem with almost all of them: Since they haven't been running for president, they haven't been vetted for scandal by the media or opposition research teams.
That gives a huge edge to two men who have been vetted because they ran on a national ticket in 2012 — Ryan and Mitt Romney.
Romney may have been too thirsty
The very fact that Ryan has so studiously maintained that he's not running may end up giving him the edge over the man who headed their joint ticket in 2012.
After all, if Trump is not the nominee then one key problem Republican delegates will worry about is trying to minimize the backlash from Trump and Trump supporters. Romney, by wading into the race in a high-profile way as an anti-Trump advocate, has become anathema to anyone who supports Trump.
The same is true of essentially anyone who would willfully stand in Trump's way.
And this is exactly the dynamic that Ryan is perfectly positioned to take advantage of. Trump is unacceptable to many Republicans. But Trump opponents are unacceptable to Trump and to hardcore Trump fans. What's needed is a compromise figure who's been above the fray this whole time. Someone the donor class loves and the operative class trusts, but who hasn't been through 10 rounds with the Donald and been labeled a loser.
Someone like Paul Ryan ... the man who managed to get himself elected speaker while maintaining that he didn't want the job.