During the brief lull in campaign news over the holidays, and with forecasts for the new year popping up on all fronts, folks obsessed with politics could be forgiven for all their idle scenario spinning.
A wave of predictions about at least one brokered convention is a quadrennial flash in the pan. Talk about the Republicans deadlocking in Cleveland come July started more than a month ago. And in recent days, the same climactic plot twist has been envisioned by politically smart people at three successive holiday social gatherings:
The next GOP presidential nominee will be Paul D. Ryan.
Prepare to be gobsmacked with how much sense that makes, at least in the universe of outside-the-box story lines.
Yes, it was just 51 weeks ago when the Wisconsin congressman, days into his tenure as House Ways and Means chairman, announced he would definitely not be a candidate for president in 2016. But it was also just 13 weeks ago when he declared a total lack of interest in the newly opened position of speaker of the House, and look how that turned out.
It’s not tough to imagine that -- after another return home to Janesville to try on the Hamlet costume, followed by the unveiling of another set of nebulous conditions that his suitors say they’re happy to meet -- Ryan would agree to such a tough assignment for the second time in as many years.
Like his route to the speakership, his path to the presidential nomination would open only after all willing volunteers undeniably fail to assemble a viable coalition of support. And, as before, the crucial first task would be papering over a deep Republican wound infected with bitterness, mistrust and confusion.
Having been drafted into the breach once, with some early success, there are reasons to believe he’d do so again.
Although for most of his first 17 years in the House he worked assiduously on his passion for developing and advancing innovative conservative fiscal policies, he’s now made the essentially irreversible switch from legislative maestro to institutional leader of the legislative branch.
He’s never really rebutted the notion that the executive branch is the institution he ultimately wants to lead. His trajectory had been pointing to 2020, if a Democrat wins this time, or else 2024 – when he’ll be just 54.
But as he showed three years ago, when he agreed to be tapped as the Republican candidate for vice president at less than the ideal time (for his career or his family dynamic), Ryan understands how political variables are infinite and opportunities can’t always be postponed. He’s not likely to demur if the top spot in 2016 ticket is simply offered to him.
As Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ryan did nothing to sully his solid standing inside the party’s power centers while developing a good reputation with a national rank and file who didn’t know him well. That happened despite his ticket losing, and even without his breaking the Democratic lock in place since 1988 on his home state’s electoral votes.
During his first two months at the helm of the House, Ryan has created the impression he’s starting simultaneously to conquer near-legendary partisan gridlock and to quell the uprising of the conservative confrontationists on his own team.
(This is a little bit of a myth. The bipartisan foundations for the big and long-overdue rewrites of surface transportation and education policy were laid down before Ryan took the gavel. And while the enormous budget package won the support of more than 60 percent of GOP House members, more actually voted “no” than opposed either of the previous two omnibus appropriations bills.)
Nonetheless, 2016 will be the first year in five to begin without profound job insecurity for the most powerful Republican at the Capitol. Assuming during the next six months he lives up to the congressional leadership version of the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”) – which mainly means meeting minimalist primary-season expectations for legislative productivity – Ryan will arrive at the convention with his reputation intact as a double-barreled "repairer of the breach."
He is sure to be at the convention. The top House leader is customarily tapped to be the ceremonial chairman, and more importantly Ryan chairs the Presidential Trust, the Republican National Committee’s vehicle for raising a multi-million-dollar kitty to be spent in coordination with the GOP ticket, mainly to help get out the vote in battleground states.
Even his facial hair, should he choose to keep it, would pose no historic impediment; the only sitting House member ever elected president, Ohio’s James A. Garfield in 1880, also sported a beard.
So there’s really only a single obstacle in the way of Ryan’s becoming the nominee: It remains highly probable the position gets all-but-officially filled before the Quicken Loans Arena doors open July 18.
The last deadlocked Republican convention was in 1948, before the modern primary era, when it took Thomas E. Dewey three ballots to secure a repeat run as the nominee. And the party’s current rules (including the front-loaded primary and caucus timetable that starts Feb. 1 in Iowa) strongly support the customary outcome: Before the final three primaries June 7, a candidate secures the majority of 1,236 pledged delegates required to guarantee nomination on the first ballot.
Of course, this campaign has deviated from the traditional patterns of the pre-voting year in most every way -- no more so than with the sustained polling success of Donald Trump. The growing possibility he could win at least a plurality of delegates in the primaries is what’s given rise to much of the talk (most notably among RNC elders at a secretive dinner last month) about options for a floor fight that prevents his nomination but might not yield the anointing of one of his declared rivals.
If the standoff grows intense enough, the delegates could conclude the only alternative to the outsider's bilious rhetoric and billowing bouffant is an insider with an aw-shucks affect and neatly trimmed tresses.
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