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Paul Ryan's misstep: great leaders don't make demands

Casual Friday, the House Freedom Caucus.
Casual Friday, the House Freedom Caucus.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It appears that Paul Ryan will be elected speaker of the House on Thursday. In order to be willing to serve as speaker, Ryan essentially demanded two things. Each of these demands is important, because each might indicate some problems on the horizon for a Ryan speakership. On the precipice of power, Ryan has distinctly not looked like Tom Clancy's Great American, John Ryan.

Kiss the ring

In order to agree to be a "candidate" for speaker, Ryan demanded that he receive the endorsement of the three main GOP caucuses. It's important that Ryan made this demand in public. To demand support is not in and of itself unusual or unreasonable, but the fact that he went public with the demand is unusual. While there are strategic reasons to demand pledges of loyalty — in particular, the GOP members are themselves representatives of their constituents — the vote for speaker is public, so a succinct pledge of loyalty will presumably come on Thursday.

The decision to go public with a demand of public endorsement can be motivated by one of two concerns. The first is that Ryan did not want to put himself in the position of not coasting to victory in Thursday's vote.  Kevin McCarthy found himself in that position a couple of weeks ago. If Ryan had this fear, then demanding a straw poll prior to agreeing to "run" for speaker is rational, but also definitively uninspiring.

On the other hand, Ryan might have been motivated by a baser desire to secure the public supplication of the members of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). I call this a baser desire because the desire to have a public endorsement prior to the actual vote is motivated by a desire to force the HFC to admit that the mess of the current leadership tussle is their fault and they recognize it.

Undermining either motivation, however, is the fact that Ryan did not actually receive the endorsement of the HFC. In the end, at least 10 to 15 GOP members appear to still be supporting Daniel Webster for speaker, arguably in pursuit of a more "open" House.

Change the rules

Ryan's second demand was that the GOP members agree to endorse a rule that would make it more difficult to remove the speaker. Currently, "the motion to vacate the chair" can be brought by anyone at any time, and requires only a simple majority. From a formal perspective, the speaker is always vulnerable: If 218 members or more get ticked off, they can fire him or her at a moment's notice. (In other words, the speakership is currently a "right to work" position, and Ryan wants to provide some workplace protections.)

While his desire for these protections is obvious, it is very telling that he demanded this in public. And, as above, it is doubly telling that Ryan gave in on this demand. He was asking for the GOP to give him not only the keys to car, but also the title. Given the HFC's worries about process and openness under the next speaker, it is simply amazing to imagine making this demand without knowing that it would be accepted.

I think Paul Ryan is a very smart politician. I think he is doing the right thing by stepping up to be speaker. But putting those two things together doesn't mean that I think he will be a very smart speaker (at least at first). He made public demands that were not fulfilled. There are times to make these (see Tim Groseclose and Nolan McCarty for an argument along these lines), but in the end, it is hard to wrangle an argument for why, when the absence of a reasonable alternative is very salient, one would make public and ultimately unfulfilled demands to assume the position. Put simply: Ryan has already visibly overplayed his hand.

In terms of why true leaders sometimes keep it secret, notice how the current speaker of the House, John Boehner, might very well have completed his budgetary coup de grâce.

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