It is very hard for the party not in charge of the White House and without a current presidential nominee to define a single leader of the party. The heads of the national parties are logistics operators and money raisers most often. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has expanded that role somewhat with an after-report on the election suggesting significant changes in the party, but still no one (including Priebus) would say he sets the agenda for the GOP. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is a good candidate for “the leader” role since he sits atop the only body under GOP control, does move the agenda and as of last week told the party who wasn’t in charge (the right-wing critics). Still, he is not the policy innovator and will not much affect Senate races nor run for the presidency. The governors collectively might be said to be at the vanguard of the party, but none has yet drawn together the entire party; obviously you can’t run the national agenda from Trenton, N.J., or Madison, Wis.
However, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at least for now has as good a claim as anyone to the informal role as head of the GOP.
He is the party’s policy wonk, to be sure. Whether on entitlement reform, tax reform, the budget or most anything else he has moved the House R’s to action, thereby setting the party up to win the House and press its conservative agenda. He largely ignited the party’s support for entitlement reform. He’s working on immigration reform. Expect a healthcare reform bill from him. And of course he brokered and then sold to his conference the budget deal to allow the party to focus on Obamacare.
Unlike many other high-profile Republicans, he has a national network of donors, a sound media presence, 100 percent name recognition and the status that comes from having at least run on a national ticket. In the aftermath of the budget fight it was he who played peacemaker between the speaker and the tea partyers, diplomatically saying the latter were important to the party’s direction toward fiscal conservatism and to the party’s electoral chances while agreeing with Boehner that it was frustrating to see groups and lawmakers oppose something they hadn’t seen yet. Slowly but surely Ryan has gained the gravitas one would expect of a national political leader.
This begs the question as to whether he will run for president. If he does, he’d be in the top tier immediately and have advantages in money, experience and staff. (Some of those staffers in fact went through the 2012 campaign with him and understand the rigors of the campaign all too well.) However, Ryan’s goals have always been policy-oriented. One could easily see him leading the charge on policy from the Ways and Means Committee and, when Boehner hangs it up, the speakership. In the stay-in-the-House scenario, Ryan becomes critical as a scene-setter (making Obamacare the key issue and devising an alternative to run on) and maybe kingmaker for the presidential nominee.
For now, however, Ryan’s a pretty good standard-bearer for the GOP. He’s the face of ending the shutdown, passing the first budget in years, devising a tougher immigration bill, constructing tax and health-care reform and practicing genial governance. The last item shouldn’t be ignored. His mentor, the late Jack Kemp, was the embodiment of conservative optimism, the ultimate happy warrior. Ryan has that aura as well.
Ryan is in an enviable place right now, getting praise from many conservative quarters and from the mainstream media. He’s not the top, sure-fire GOP presidential contender, so he avoids some criticism from other contenders and the media. And he is a position to affect what he considers most important, a conservative reform agenda. It’s easy to see him running for president, but for now he’ll get some experience steering a policy course from the House. If he doesn’t run for president, that will likely be his future role in the party.