There are two very clear and very different political paths before Paul Ryan right now.
1. Down this path lies a presidential bid in 2016, a race in which the Wisconsin Republican would enter as a top-tier candidate if not, perhaps, the race's frontrunner.
2. Down this path lies the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee in the 114th Congress and, eventually, a chance to be the Speaker/House Minority Leader.
Ryan's timetable to choose his path -- a decision that will deeply impact his political career going forward -- got goosed a bit on Monday when Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the current chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, announced he would retire at the end of the 113th Congress. While Camp was term limited out of the post at the end of the year and most plugged-in observers of Congress expected him to bow out, his decision to do so early in 2014 caught many people by surprise -- and ensured that the race to succeed him will break out into the open earlier than expected.
Ryan is currently fourth in line -- behind Camp as well as Texas Reps. Sam Johnson and Kevin Brady -- in terms of seniority on the Ways and Means Committee. But, in conversations with a variety of current and former Republican Capitol Hill aides, there's little doubt that the Wisconsin Republican is the clear frontrunner to take the gavel in 2015 if he wants it.
The current thinking on Ryan among Capitol Hill denizens is that he is leaning toward the Ways and Means chairmanship when it comes to the next step in his political life. "Ways and Means for sure," said one senior House Republican aide. "He has said publicly and privately that [it] is his dream job."
Added a one prominent Republican lobbyist who closely follows the internal GOP machinations: "Paul thought a great deal about running for Ways and Means Committee Chair/Ranking Member six years ago when Jim McCrery retired. He decided against it and his Irish luck and fate have put him at the nexus now as chair during a time when tax and entitlement reforms may be ripe as well as the upcoming 2016 presidential election."
But, Ryan also is aware, according those who know him, that he sits in something of a catbird's seat when it comes to the 2016 race as well, and that if he decides not to run this time around it's uniquely possible that he might never have another opportunity nearly as good as this one to run for national office. Given that, Ryan appears to be genuinely mulling a presidential bid and, according to those close to him, is more serious about the prospect than many in D.C. political circles believe. To that end, Ryan will be in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 11 to headline the state Republican party's Lincoln Day Dinner. It will be his second trip to the Hawkeye State in the last few months; he keynoted Gov. Terry Branstad's birthday party last November. (Worth noting: When Ryan was last in Iowa, former state GOP chair Matt Strawn offered to set up meetings with key activists and donors in the state. Ryan declined.)
The challenge in trying to discern what Ryan will do -- or even in what direction he is leaning -- is that he has few close advisers and keeps his own counsel on most things. The one thing that comes through in any conversation with those who know (or purport to know) Ryan's mind is that he cares far more about policy than he does about the nitty-gritty of politics. His lack of a political team -- outside of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker it's not entirely clear who Ryan consults with -- suggests that he lacks the native interest in the "game" end of politics to put himself through a presidential bid. But, we said that same thing in March 2012 about Ryan -- and he wound up on the 2012 presidential ticket.
Here's one other thing we know about Ryan: His timetable to make his mind up about, well, everything, is relatively short. Not only would he want to close off talk of someone other than him serving as the next Ways and Means chairman but he also needs to make his mind up on the presidential race in order to clear the way (or not) for Walker's own bid. (Walker and Ryan are very close personally and there's virtually no one who knows both of them that thinks they would run against one another for president.)
Pressure will rise on Ryan to make (more) clear where his interests lie. What he decides will shape the face and future of his party -- in the House and nationally.