Paul Ryan is on a roll.
Last week, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin helped steer a budget compromise — one that will avert the sort of brinkmanship that has dominated Congress of late — to passage largely on the strength of his personality and reputation for conservatism within his conference.
In the process, he not only reemerged as a major force within the GOP but also lent his voice to the growing chorus of those telling tea party purists within their ranks that enough is enough.
Asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about Sen. Marco Rubio’s opposition to the compromise, Ryan responded: “Read the deal and get back to me. . . . In the minority, you don’t have the burden of governing, of getting things done.” Yowza.
As chairman of the Budget Committee, Ryan’s status as a first-among-equals within the House — and perhaps within the national party writ large — was affirmed by a Des Moines Register poll released Sunday that tested the impressions that Iowans have of the potential 2016 presidential field. Ryan was the most popular Republican tested in the survey — with almost three-quarters of Iowa Republicans saying they felt very or mostly favorable about him. Among a subsample of tea-partiers, Ryan was again the best liked, with a 66 percent favorable score. (Worth noting: Most of the poll was conducted before the budget compromise was announced.)
All of which begs an obvious question: What does Ryan want? And that is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Here’s why.
Ryan is just not someone with a group of political people around him. Unlike, say, Rubio (R-Fla.), who has built a sort of 2016 campaign-in-waiting by recruiting top talent to his Senate office, Ryan seems allergic to building that sort of operation. Ask around about who in the political world is close to Ryan and you get a bunch of blank stares. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who served as chair of the Wisconsin GOP previously, are two of the only known Ryan political confidants.
That lack of a political inner circle creates a sort of echo chamber of uninformed voices when it comes to Ryan’s future plans. Six months ago, all of the chatter inside Republican circles was that Ryan was more serious about running for president than most people thought. In the past month (or so), however, the general consensus is that he has little interest in a bid.
It’s uniquely possible that Ryan’s stance on running for president hasn’t changed in that time, but no one would know, because he isn’t talking and he doesn’t have many people who can (or will) talk for him. “I’ve decided I will consider this later,” Ryan told the Des Moines Register in November. “Once I’m through with this term, then I’m going to give a hard look at it.”
That doesn’t give the political class much to work with. But there are a few reasons to believe that Ryan is ramping up his role in Congress rather than prepping a presidential bid.
First, if he wanted to win the GOP nomination in 2016, putting his face on a budget agreement opposed by leading outside conservative groups — and the tea party faction in Congress — isn’t the smartest play. Second, Ryan’s lack of a political team is, at least in part, due to the fact that he is much more of a policy head than a political one.
And though there is always an “ideas” slot in the primary race — we call it the honorary Newton Leroy Gingrich position — Ryan’s aversion to raw politics could make it tough for him to prosper even there.
So it looks like the House route for Ryan. “While he won’t close the door to a White House run in 2016, I expect he will choose to serve as the Ways and Means chairman in the next Congress,” said one senior House GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid about Ryan. “Remember, if he waited 20 years to run for president, he’d still be a young candidate, historically speaking.”
True. At 43, Ryan could spend the next decade rising up the ranks of the House — if the GOP holds the majority all of that time, it’s not hard to imagine him as speaker — and still be on the young side of a presidential field in 2024.
Where will he end up? Only Ryan knows — and he’s not telling.