Thursday, March 24, 2016

Paul Ryan's presidential campaign speech yesterday

Maybe you heard, but the big political news yesterday is that Speaker Paul Ryan gave a speech.

Ooooh!  Ooooh!  A Paul Ryan speech!

What did he say?  Nothing of consequence.  He whined about the tone of our politics, without mentioning Donald Trump, but are we going to pretend that our political system isn't Trump-centric?  I have already explained why I don't particularly care about Trump's "vulgarity" (see here), but the speech was interesting for other reasons.

By implicitly criticizing Trump without mentioning him by name, Ryan was trying to make himself a unifying figure in the party.  The point is that a contested convention scenario, should it lead to any non-Trump candidate, would probably lead to a Ryan candidacy.  Does he want that?  Well...

Ryan absolutely does not want to be Speaker with a President Hillary Clinton.  That's Boehner territory.  John Boehner was torn between the Ted Cruz-influenced House Freedom Caucus and reality.  In reality, a Republican House can't move policy significantly to the right with a Democratic president because the president just vetoes everything.  But, the Freedom Caucus didn't want to believe that.  Spurred on by Ted Cruz, they insisted that if they just shut down the government and threatened to blow through the debt ceiling, Obama would eventually cave and give them whatever they wanted.

John Boehner, smart person that he is, recognized that the Freedom Caucus's position was, in technical, political science terms, idiotic bullshit.  Boehner knew that shutting down the government was a un-winnable scenario, and breaching the debt ceiling is pretty much the dumbest thing you can do.  Any conflict with Obama, after the 2011 Budget Control Act, was going to lead nowhere.  Any demand Republicans made after that was going to be rebuffed, and Republicans would have to withdraw their demands.  That meant Boehner would be seen by the Freedom Caucus as a betrayer for recognizing the constraints of divided government.  That led to his downfall.

Next, remember that Paul Ryan didn't want the job of the speakership.  Why not?  He knew he would be in the same bind.  He didn't accept the job until Boehner raised the debt ceiling to cover everything through 2016, hoping that 2016 would give Republicans unified control, at which point the Speaker would simply be able to move policy to the right without worrying about a left-leaning president's veto.

Well, here we are in 2016.  If Trump is the nominee, Clinton is the betting favorite to win.  A Ryan-Clinton dynamic would be the same as the Boehner-Obama one.  It will probably end the same way-- with Ryan's forced resignation because the Freedom Caucus doesn't want to believe that a Democratic president actually constrains Congress in any significant way.  Ryan is as scared of a Trump nomination as anyone because it could easily cost him his Speakership the way it did for Boehner.

But, if a contested convention gives the nomination to Ryan as a "consensus" choice, the result would probably be a Trump third party run, and a Clinton presidency with Ryan out of a job completely.

At that point, Ryan becomes the leader of old guard of conservatism in exile.  Does the party fracture?  Regroup?  Reform in some other way?  We don't know, but Ryan would be at the center of it.

Does Ryan want a contested convention to give him the nomination?  Quite possibly.  He doesn't really have any good options here.  He won't be president.  He doesn't expect to be Speaker with a Republican president.  That means either being run out of town like Boehner, or making himself a martyr to the cause of conservatism.

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