On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) gave a variation on the “Sherman” statement. That statement has marked the definitive, no-loophole declaration of a non-candidacy for president ever since Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman uttered it in regards to the 1884 presidential election. Since these statements are always parsed for any possible nuance, let me offer an interpretation that goes beyond Ryan’s simple “no.” While Ryan made it clear he will not run, what’s interesting is the reason he gave. He said that if you want to be the nominee for president, you should “actually run for it,” adding that if the party cannot agree to a nominee on the first convention ballot, its only option is to nominate someone who was a candidate.
What this means is that Ryan believes the only valid nominees in 2016 are Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (if he was being cute, he could also mean any of the other 17 or so men and woman who once were candidates, but I don’t think that was his intent). Parsing further, Ryan likely believes that neither Cruz nor Trump will be elected president — and that a Kasich nomination is impossible, given the paucity of his delegate count. So following this logic, Ryan must be satisfied with the Republicans losing the presidency in 2016.
There are several reasons he could favor this result. Perhaps he wants to save the House and his speakership from the sinking ship of the Republican presidential contest. Or he wants his eventual candidacy for the presidency to come not out of the chaos and recrimination that will occur in Cleveland this summer, but after the party loses in November and has been cleansed of its madness. But here’s the problem with this train of thought: By endorsing a looming disaster at the top of the Republican ticket, Ryan has put in jeopardy the very outcomes he holds dear. While the Republican House majority could withstand a three-point loss at the top of the ticket, if the margin were to creep above five, the down-ballot repercussions become serious. Moreover, if Ryan is setting himself up for a clean shot at the presidency, when will that be? In 2020, he would face an incumbent, which is always a tricky proposition, and 2024 is several political lifetimes from now, and he would no longer be a fresh face. The political graveyards are filled with people who tried to time the political markets.
Of course, there is another explanation for Ryan’s “Sherman.” “No” is a rare and powerful word in politics. Where do you think Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would be today had they said no to a presidential run? In the same position as Ryan: Their reputations would be untarnished, and they would be entertaining entreaties to “please, pretty please” become a candidate and save our party from destruction. That’s where Ryan is today, his Shermanesque declaration notwithstanding.