The Ryan Express

by John Lawrence

Now that Vice President Biden has ended one Washington waiting game, all attention turns to whether Rep. Paul Ryan will accept the speakership. If so, he will assuredly become a target of the same dissidents who made John Boehner’s speakership so vexing.  In the pantheon of “establishment leaders” whom the Tea Party enjoys excoriating, a niche has already been chiseled out for Mr. Ryan to occupy.

Back on October 3rd, four days before the end of the all-too-brief Kevin McCarthy “speakership,” I emailed a friend about the disintegrating House Republican Conference. “I wonder if they pressure Ryan to get into this,” I wrote. “This new crowd is ridiculous.”

In his briefing last night with the Republican Conference, Ryan told his colleagues that he was prepared to take “arrows in the chest but not in the back.” He should probably think long and hard about believing whatever representations are offered.

Ryan is the logical choice for rational Republicans. Beyond his experience as a chairman and national candidate (both unique for a prospective Speaker), Ryan speaks the language of contemporary American politics: budgets, spending, deficits, entitlements. Particularly in his years as Budget chairman, Ryan gathered valuable experience in negotiating with Democrats, the Senate and the White House, all talents that McCarthy and other GOP hopefuls lack that will potentially serve him and House Republicans, should he become Speaker.

But … ah, there’s always a “but.” Ryan would have to accept the job knowing that, assurances aside, he will assuredly become a target for the same dissidents who made John Boehner’s speakership so vexing. On tax increases, immigration, TARP, even the 2013 grand bargain, many view Ryan as a co-conspirator with Boehner.   Unless Boehner is somehow able to negotiate a long-term budget deal before his departure — and it would certainly be in Ryan’s interest to have those issues off the table — the new Speaker will confront the same deadline dilemmas that have flummoxed Boehner. Ryan may be too interested in legislating overall for the far Right which is satisfied with stasis.

Indeed, Ryan’s confidence in his ability to negotiate the elusive Grand Bargain that slipped through Boehner’s fingers in 2011 may make him appealing to the outgoing Obama Administration and terrifying to the Tea Party.   Addressing entitlement and tax reform, while lifting the sequestration caps, would be a major achievement, allowing the next Administration to begin without confronting immediate deficit and spending restraints. To achieve such a breakthrough, or any breakthrough, would require Ryan’s willingness to take a few of those arrows he hopes to avoid, and also the backbone to stare down those who demand he accept an eviscerated speakership.

The Freedom Caucus has issued a lengthy list of demands designed to assure every Member “the same influence on the legislative process as everyone else” in the words of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC). It wants assurances that bills will come to the floor with open rules, that all Members will be allowed to offer amendments, and that restraints on debate time will be relaxed. They insist on further constraints on the Speaker, relocating power the fractious Republican Conference.

Ryan’s counteroffer insists that House rules require a supermajority to remove a Speaker from office, enabling him to defy his irritant caucus while he cuts inevitable deals. Rep. Raúl Labrador, one of the incurable intractables, has already dismissed that demand a “non-starter.”

If Ryan accepts the speakership under such constraints, he deserves all the heartache he will surely get. If the last few years prove anything, it is that in order to govern any House majority, you need to possess the skills to listen to everyone, but the fortitude to act despite the threats of retribution. That means being respectful of your Members, but not letting them put a ring in your nose and drag you around like a bull at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Boehner learned that lesson the hard way, taking a laid back approach to leadership that empowered junior conspirators. “I don’t need to be out there beating the drum every day,” Boehner declared. “It doesn’t need the heavy hand of the Speaker all over everything.”  Boehner was caving to hardliners like Rep. Lynn Jenkins (KA) who declared, “Gone are the days when the leaders decide what the conference is gonna do,” and she was Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference! When he employed the “heavy hand,” to punish Republicans who opposed his re-election as Speaker, he looked clumsy and ineffective.

Ryan will likely reach an accommodation with the Freedom Caucus because there really is no “Plan B,” and time is running out. “Judge me against the alternative, not the Almighty,” candidates often ask their voters. In this case, even the Almighty cannot save the Republicans if they opt for the alternative. Given the prospects for a Ryan speakership, they probably should try to stay on His good side.