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Is Paul Ryan the Leader of the Conservative Movement?

When the Republican Party took back control of the House in 1994, a confluence of events combined to make it even more of a watershed moment than it would otherwise have been. The fact that the GOP had been out of power in Congress for four decades gave it an “underdog” storyline. Newt Gingrich, who led the “revolution,” was combustible and charismatic and understood better than most politicians of his time–especially his fellow Republicans–how to garner attention and win a news cycle. And CNN’s breakthrough coverage of the first Gulf War a few years earlier created a new cable TV news landscape perfectly set up to cover the Gingrich-Clinton drama as it unfolded.

The Republican takeover that year had lasting effects, not least because of the fact that Republicans suddenly kept winning, even as they became more politically conservative and developed a party agenda that was more than just standing athwart the Democrats’ plans yelling “Stop.” That post-1994 new normal held steady until the first Obama term and this election season, combined with the new prominence of social media and grassroots conservative fundraising prowess, created another such political tectonic shift: the rise of the fiscal conservative reformers. And there is perhaps no more recognizable leader of this conservative core than vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

As much influence as the Tea Party-affiliated members of Congress have been able to exert over the legislative affairs of the country, the Republican Party is still clearly at a crossroads. Mitt Romney’s nomination was the result of many factors, but it was not because he leads a movement within the party. No strand of the conservative movement, therefore, was elevated above the others by Romney’s successful bid for the GOP presidential nomination. That is one reason there was so much interest, especially on the right, in Romney’s choice of vice presidential nominee.

What would a President Romney’s agenda look like? Many suggested that question would be answered as much by his running mate as anything else. But above all, Romney had the ability to elevate a conservative (or moderate Republican) and that person’s followers within the party. There were plenty of strong choices for the veep position because there are so many talented rising stars in the party: Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Kelly Ayotte, and others. But the one that stood out the most to Romney was also the one with arguably the broadest coalition within the party and among the conservative movement: Paul Ryan.

When considering potential presidential nominees for 2016 if Obama wins reelection, we can probably take Jim DeMint’s name off the list, as he is unlikely to run. Jeb Bush is a wild card: many will say he missed his window, or that he won’t run against Rubio, but he would also attract immediate support from across the party spectrum. It makes sense for Rand Paul to run, I suppose, if only to build his base and his following the way his father did. But I doubt he’d be much of a threat to the others. Jindal is immensely qualified, but it’s unclear if he can thrive on the national stage.

Ideologically, however, both Ryan and Rubio are in good standing with each of the party’s wings. On budgetary issues, most of the young conservatives are on the same page. But judging from the response to the various speeches at the Republican National Convention, the party remains closer on foreign policy to both John McCain’s hawkishness and Condoleezza Rice’s muscular realism than to Rand Paul’s retrenchment. (I don’t think the term “isolationist” is accurate, especially since isolationism used to mean opposition to free trade.) And on social issues, the party remains strongly pro-life.

Would that last one exclude Christie? He is pro-life, but not especially fond of legislating his preferences on social issues. There is probably one more category of conservative worth mentioning: the intellectual wing of the movement. This wing is often more moderate, and therefore at odds with the grassroots base, but still has a high degree of influence within the party and may be best positioned to advance ideas, if not candidacies.

Many of the rising stars in the party would attract their support, and that certainly includes Paul Ryan. And now there is one more advantage for Ryan: even if Romney loses, Ryan will be the lone member of this presidential ticket still vying for prominence within the Republican Party. It does not quite make him a standard bearer, but I think it’s close enough. He has been touring the country making the case for conservatism, and he would garner support from each faction of the movement. So would others, surely. But Ryan may wake up on Wednesday the vice president-elect of the United States, and that means something.

If Romney wins tomorrow, Ryan is undoubtedly first in line, at least for the time being, to inherit the party. But even if he loses tomorrow he is poised to make that claim anyway. That means the conservative grassroots would be elevated to prominence right along with him, solidifying this tectonic shift.


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