Let’s take House Speaker Paul Ryan at his word that he has no interest in running for president this year, even if a deadlocked Republican convention were to turn to him as a savior this summer. Heck, Ryan didn’t even want to be speaker until pressured into it in the weeks after a conservative revolt forced John Boehner to resign. But though he was a reluctant speaker and has disavowed any idea of parachuting into the presidential race, Ryan is under intense scrutiny because of the way his office has been promoting him and his ideas in a way that is unusual for a Speaker of the House in a presidential election year. In particular, a video depicting him speaking to Congressional interns about his core beliefs has gotten tremendous attention because it seems more like an ad for a presidential candidate than anything else. But if Ryan isn’t running for president, what is he doing?
The answer appears to be one that isn’t any more to the liking of the leading GOP presidential candidates than an announcement of his candidacy. He is clearly seeking to prepare the Republican Party for the aftermath of what might be an electoral debacle this fall by promoting a policy campaign that will keep alive the core ideas of the conservative movement. While Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz have pandered to a populist anti-trade and anti-immigrant trend in American politics, Ryan is keeping the flame of the party’s principles burning. That not only provides an interesting counterpoint to what Trump and Cruz are saying but also lays the foundation for rebuilding the GOP in case 2016 turns into a debacle.
Of course, Trump supporters are having none of this. They see Ryan, one of the driving forces behind the push for conservative ideas in Washington during the last generation, as a mere tool of the DC establishment. At best they believe he is seeking to ignore or override their desire to reshape the GOP. At worst, they think he is conducting a shadow campaign that is intended to steal the presidential nomination from the choices endorsed by the voters in Cleveland.
To a certain extent, they have a point. Voters in Republican primaries and caucuses appear to have rejected Ryan’s ideas. Anger about immigration reform, which Ryan favors, helped both Trump and Cruz get a jump in the race. The same is true of opposition to trade bills that Ryan favors. Even if they differ on immigration and trade, Cruz shares much of Ryan’s conservative ideology. Yet the tone of Ryan’s efforts seems a direct contradiction of a lot of what the two leading Republicans candidates have been saying. Ryan’s critique of “identity politics” made in the video particularly hits the mark as a riposte to a GOP campaign that has centered more on anger and resentment of the establishment than anything else. Ryan’s talk about our “common humanity” and the need to bring people together rather than divide them is inspired. But it is also exactly the sort of message that a great many Republican voters have specifically rejected. Indeed, if that were what primary and caucus voters truly wanted, Marco Rubio would be the frontrunner rather than Trump.
From the point of view of those who believe that Republicans need to expand their base rather than merely try harder to get out more of their core voters, Ryan’s efforts are welcome. If, as the New York Times reports, all the videos, social media activity, and speeches are meant to help shape the discussion and supplement the party platform at Cleveland on poverty and economic issues, it will be an effort to provide an alternative to Trump’s talk of a wall for which Mexico will pay.
What that means is that even if Ryan stays out of any possible presidential maneuvering in Cleveland what he’s doing is to begin a war of ideas that will ultimately decide the future of the Republican Party.
To that, Trump supporters will answer that such a war has already begun and someone that opposes much of what Ryan’s optimistic conservatism stand for is on the verge of winning it. They’re right about that. But even if Trump emerges from Cleveland as the GOP standard bearer, that doesn’t end the battle to save conservatism from Trump’s angry populism that is as much if not more of a threat to notions of conservative governance as it is to Obama-style liberalism. In the unlikely event of Trump being elected president, as the leader of House Republicans Ryan would serve as a check on the real estate mogul’s belief in concentrating more power in the presidency that rivals that of Barack Obama.
But in the far more likely scenario in which Trump leads the GOP to defeat, Ryan’s initial efforts to promote a different view of Republicans stands for will be the beginning of an effort to rebuild what may be a shattered party on a basis that are not only more attuned to conservative principles but also more electable in the long run. So perhaps what we’re really talking about is the start of Ryan’s 2020 campaign.
Is it too soon for Republicans to begin preparing for losing in November? Yes, but what Ryan seems to be doing is more than just building for the future. Trump’s divisive and insulting behavior may have won him the devotion of a large fan base, but it is also setting a destructive tone that could ensure the destruction of Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. The pushback against it needs to be more than Cruz’s talk of a “bloodbath.” An alternative set of ideas — of which Ryan has never been in short supply — is just as necessary.
As for the presidential rumors about Ryan, he should be believed when he says that’s not what he’s aiming for. But should the Cleveland convention become deadlocked with neither Trump nor Cruz being able to secure a majority, there isn’t much doubt a lot of Republicans will look to Ryan as a potential savior of his party. I don’t think it will happen because, in 2016, Ryan would be a rejection of both Trump and Cruz, not a compromise between them. But if the GOP is to have a future as a conservative party of ideas along the lines that Ronald Reagan helped build, then Ryan’s phantom campaign is a vital first step to a recovery that will follow what may be a dismal collapse.