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Did Paul Ryan Miss His Window?

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Paul D. Ryan had a chance to unite the House Republican Conference. Now it may be gone.  

If he’d decided to run for speaker in the immediate aftermath of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision to quit the race to replace John A. Boehner, the conference may have voted him in by acclamation. But the hemming and hawing may have hurt both his potential candidacy and his ability to handle the job if he ultimately wins it. In a more normal political environment, Ryan’s delay might have had the opposite effect, putting the pressure on Republicans to anoint him, especially considering no better candidates have emerged. But the fervor on the right wing of the GOP has made for anything but a normal environment, said Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, who has followed Ryan’s career.  

“The rhetoric surrounding the speakership, in the last two weeks, has escalated the conflict rather than soothed the waters,” he said.  

Indeed, the 12-day interlude between McCarthy’s decision and the Republican conference meeting Tuesday night has given conservative interest groups time to question Ryan’s record. It turns out the former author of supply-side budgets, which made him one of the right’s premier policy wonks, has some skeletons in his policy closet, at least so far as conservatives are concerned: his support for a more lenient immigration system, his votes in favor of bank bailouts in 2008 and his willingness to tinker with the budget cuts Congress enacted in the sequester deal of 2011.  

A Ryan campaign for speaker could face stiffer opposition. Consider the shifting statements of those in the party’s conservative House Freedom Caucus. Three days after McCarthy stepped aside, one of the leaders of the rebellion that toppled Boehner, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, said Ryan “comes right to the head of the list” of candidates who could unite the party. In less than a week, Mulvaney changed his tune, telling radio host Hugh Hewitt Ryan was no longer a shoo-in: “You don’t get to win just because you’re Paul Ryan.”  

Republican Steve King of Iowa, an immigration hard-liner, suggested Ryan would now lose the speaker’s race.  

At a minimum, the fealty of the entire caucus, which Ryan has apparently said is his condition for taking the job, is now off the table. Ryan may have thought that playing hard-to-get would intensify the movement to draft him as speaker. In reality, it’s done the opposite.  

Even if he were to prevail now, there’s a good chance his indecision could make him look like a pushover. The Hamlet act, said Catholic University professor Matthew Green, could “hurt him insofar as members might think he doesn’t have his heart in it, that he’s not really going to use the powers of the speakership assertively and won’t resist if conservatives later ask him to step aside because he never wanted the job.”  

Green, the author of a book on the speakership, said there has been no similar case in modern history in which a leading candidate was so reluctant to take the reins.  

If Ryan is making a honeymoon — in which members wouldn’t criticize his decisions — a condition, he’d better think again, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.  

“He should be reluctant. He now has a huge position at Ways and Means and little downside. There are very few people shooting at him," Gingrich said. "Within 72 hours of being speaker someone will start shooting at him.”  

Gingrich said that would have been the case regardless of whether he took the job right away, and that he should take it for the good of the party.  

Bob Livingston, the former House Appropriations chairman who dropped his own bid for the speakership in 1998, figures there is nothing Ryan could do now to ensure a more acquiescent GOP caucus. The conservatives “personalized it with Boehner and presumably will personalize it with any person that succeeds Boehner,” he said.  

Indeed, if Ryan has changed his mind, he'll have to campaign for the job he said he never wanted, according to Freedom Caucus members. They are demanding he answer their demands for a more open amendment and floor process and greater say in who serves as committee chairmen. By engaging in that sort of politicking, Ryan will have to make promises and face the consequences if he breaks them.  

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