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Why Going Slow Shapes Ryan's Political Future

Ryan departs a Tuesday night news conference. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Never in modern history has an heir to the speakership showed as much reluctance as Paul D. Ryan, who has already had nearly two weeks to ponder whether to pursue the job and even more time if he takes until Friday to decide. That’s the self-imposed deadline the Wisconsin Republican set at a meeting with the House GOP conference Tuesday night.  

The Ryan delay has some potential benefits, both for his speaker bid and for his future in politics. It also could hurt him. Here are five benefits and five drawbacks to Ryan's go-slow approach: PLUSES

  1. There's nobody but him. Ryan’s reluctance has frozen the field of potential candidates. It's a sign of Ryan’s clout within the caucus that only Daniel Webster, the Florida Republican endorsed by the House Freedom Caucus, is officially in the race. Ryan is clearly the heir apparent and the vast majority of the Republican caucus is willing to clear a path for his ascendancy.
  2. It puts pressure on the Freedom Caucus. If House conservatives now sink Ryan’s candidacy, it could prompt the rest of the Republican conference to fight back. Indeed, it could bolster the case some in the Tuesday Group of more centrist Republicans are making for a rule change that would expel from the party anyone who opposes the conference’s chosen candidate for speaker on the floor. It could also increase the willingness of GOP centrists to cut a deal with Democrats to find a replacement for the outgoing speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio.
  3. If Ryan does win the job, his reluctance to take it could strengthen his hand in future negotiations over policy. When he asks members to take tough votes, he can say: “I don’t care if it makes you unhappy with me or not because I could take or leave this job.”
  4. Ryan’s political ambitions are unclear but he did run for vice president just three years ago. If he wants to run on a national ticket again someday his reputation as a family man who put his children ahead of the speakership should play well. Ryan is insisting that other members share the weekend travel and fundraising load if he takes the job, so that he can continue to spend time with his wife and young children.
  5. It could allow Ryan to continue to do what he really enjoys doing, writing policy. If the Freedom Caucus refuses to budge, Ryan can now back out and say the mess that follows is not on him. And he can go back to the Ways and Means Committee, where he’s chairman, and write the first big tax overhaul bill since 1986.

MINUSES

  1. If Ryan has decided now that he really would like the job, his indecision has given interest groups time to uncover his breaks with conservative orthodoxy, such as his support for a more open immigration system and his 2008 votes in favoring of bailing out Wall Street banks. As a result, there’s now a question whether he can get to 218 in the House.
  2. His indecision could force him to do what he says he will not: Campaign for the job. If Ryan had entered the race immediately after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California stepped aside on Oct. 8, he probably would have cruised to any easy victory. Since, the Freedom Caucus has had the time to put together a list of process changes they want the new speaker to make, and they say they won’t make an exception for Ryan.
  3. It makes him look like a pushover. If he wins the job and conservatives aren’t happy with how he’s running the House, they might feel emboldened to challenge him, figuring he never wanted the job anyway.
  4. Ryan looks naïve. By setting a high bar and insisting that the caucus come together and unite behind him, he’s setting himself up for failure. As any past speaker will attest, the job prompts criticism, not immunity from it.
  5. It could undermine a bid for higher office. If he can’t bring Republicans together as speaker, how could he bring the country together as president?