When Paul Ryan effectively took himself out of consideration as a possible Stop Trump candidate at a contested GOP convention, the smart thinking in town immediately leapt to the idea that Ryan's real sights are on the 2020 race.
In a whole bunch of ways, "bide your time" makes sense as a strategy for almost any plausible anti-Trump contender. But Ryan has one big problem in this regard: If he's still speaker at all in 2017, it's likely to be a disastrous experience for him — an epic cycle of internecine fights and humiliating climb-downs that make John Boehner's years in office look dignified.
The problem is Donald Trump.
Trump is going to hurt the GOP down ballot
The argument here is pretty simple. Trump is currently unpopular, and he's also very politically vulnerable to attacks that only a Democrat can make.
This is already causing experts to downgrade the safety of GOP-held House seats while Democrats look to accelerate the transformation of certain key districts into competitive ones.
Trump is a particularly difficult candidate for down-ballot candidates to distance themselves from because he's not really running a policy-oriented campaign, and the objections to him are fundamentally about values rather than issues. A Democrat running in a right-of-center district can say she disagrees with Hillary Clinton about Keystone XL, late-term abortions, and taxing soda while embracing her more popular positions. A Republican running in an anti-Trump district can't very well say he disagrees with Trump about racist demagoguery but is with him on tax cuts.
If you embrace Trump, the dirt is going to stick. If you denounce him, the backlash from his base will be intense. If you're a Republican running in a district where Trump isn't popular, you have a problem.
A shrinking GOP majority empowers the Freedom Caucus
It's still very unlikely that Democrats would obtain a majority in the House. But in some ways it's worse for Ryan personally to preside over a shrunken Republican majority.
That's because the Republican casualties would disproportionately be coming from seats that lean one or two or three or four points in the GOP's favor, leaving the staunchly conservative seats held by Freedom Caucus types unscathed.
Already, Ryan has proven unable to wrangle 218 Republican votes to pass a budget resolution with the right-wing of the caucus insisting on measures that the party leadership doesn't regard as politically sound.
Today, the stakes are low. Republicans don't need to pass a budget if they don't want to. But next year, must-pass measures that have been deferred until after the presidential election will be back on the docket. And with the Republican majority shrunken, an even smaller number of die-hard rightwingers will be able to gum up the works.
Especially given likely Democratic control of the Senate, Ryan's only realistic option will be to compromise with Democrats and pass legislation that relies primarily on Democratic votes — a recipe for a restless caucus.
Paul Ryan, RINO
Since Ryan is likely to be dealing with a newly elected Democratic president and a newly empowered Democratic Senate majority, he is going to be negotiating with a relatively weak hand — especially since he won't be able to count on caucus unity.
Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the party will feel — as they usually do — that the real story of the GOP's 2016 electoral disaster is that the party didn't run a real conservative to head the national ticket. And in the particular case of Trump, they'll have a pretty good case. Trump isn't anyone's idea of a "moderate" exactly, but he really is someone with no grounding in conservative ideology or the institutions of the conservative movement.
Ryan will be caught between a GOP whose impulse is to react to the Trump fiasco by doubling-down on purism and the cold, hard legislative math that forces him to cut deals with Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer.
The upshot is that Ryan is going to end up finding himself RINOed, like John Boehner before him. Denounced as a Republican In Name Only who came to DC to betray conservatives. If that results in a font of boring, centrist, bipartisan legislation, Ryan may get the privilege of being considered an elder statesman by Beltway graybeard types. If it results in Boehner-style crises, he'll simply be universally reviled. But either way, he'll be a traitor to his base and utterly unsuited for future presidential nominations.