Unfortunately for Ryan, Air Force Two still remains beyond his reach.
After Romney and Ryan’s defeat Tuesday night, the seven-term Wisconsin Republican will return to Capitol Hill with no clear flight path, a wealth of options and a host of questions about his political future.
Ryan, 42, could decide that the House offers the best place to pursue his ambitions. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has secured a place among his party’s intellectual leaders, speaking out on how to rein in entitlement costs and cut government spending. Staying in the midst of the action could keep him in the public eye, but it also carries the risk of dragging him back into the gridlocked skirmishing that has earned Congress such consistently low marks in public opinion polls.
He could choose to leave Congress and head for the quieter quarters of a think tank or the megaphone of the lecture circuit, if he wants to gear up early for a 2016 presidential bid of his own. But few nominees, let alone presidents, have traveled that path to the White House. Ronald Reagan, in 1980, was the last president to be elected from private life rather than from a public office.
Will the GOP ticket’s loss tarnish Ryan in some way? Ryan’s backers say no. So have some in the media, such as New York Magazine’s John Heilemann, whose Sunday story about Ryan carried the headline, “Win or Lose, Paul Ryan’s GOP Future Is Bright.”
Weekly Standard columnist Bill Kristol, one of Ryan’s most ardent supporters, predicted that the Wisconsin Republican is not going to follow in the footsteps of other unsuccessful vice-presidential nominees. He is “not going to do what John Edwards did in ’04, just to be an outside figure campaigning for president,” Kristol said. “He’s not going to be a Palin.”
Rather, he argued, Ryan is likely to stay in the House and play a hand in negotiating the fiscal deals that need to be made or pushing for conservative alternatives, because even with an Obama victory, “something has to happen on taxes and entitlements and the deficit.”
Kristol sees Ryan as determined to pursue his agenda of fiscal restraint. “He’s in it for the policy,” Kristol said. “He’s in it for the governing. . . . He’s an able guy. He can do a lot of things in a lot of places.”
Even in defeat, other Ryan backers say, the Wisconsin Republican has already had an outsize role in shaping the party’s positions. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, contends that Ryan ultimately was more successful in pushing Romney to the right than Romney was in bringing his running mate closer to the center.