Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hasn’t seemed all that interested in a pre-season presidential campaign. Unlike governors and senators who make a point to visit early primary states and create anticipation with every speech and TV interview, Ryan has been busy with his day job. That is both the benefit and the curse of being a busy legislator.
Ryan is up to his elbows in a slew of sticky policy issues — an Obamacare alternative, immigration reform, a pro-opportunity agenda. His announcement that he’d seek the chairmanship of Ways and Means confirmed his stature as the most important legislator — the guy who comes up with the substance and the arguments for major initiatives — in either party. More than most pols, he is motivated by big ideas (the future of conservatism) and by policy. He is very much Jack Kemp’s and Bill Bennett’s successor on the right.
Oddly, that focus on policy seems to have convinced many conservatives that Ryan won’t be running for president. That says volumes about the state of politics and the nature of presidential campaigns, I suppose, but not much about Ryan’s future. It’s a sad reality that “policy wonk” is not in the top attributes of most presidential candidates. But events have a funny way of shattering expectations.
He is, in a very real way, benefiting from others’ travails. He opposed the shutdown, unlike a certain three senators. He is working on an affirmative GOP agenda, unlike any other GOP contender. He is popular with the base, squeaky clean on ethics and — unlike every other contender — experienced in running on a presidential ticket. With the exception of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, he may be the only contender not deeply disliked by one faction of the GOP.
Ryan at this point isn’t focused on a presidential run, which leads party insiders to conclude he is not interested. But it was not his life’s ambition to be vice president either, yet events and his own talents conspired to put him on the 2012 ticket. Likewise, several factors may push him toward a presidential run in 2016:
• If , for example, Walker decides not to run, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gets bogged down and former Florida governor Jeb Bush isn’t interested, Ryan, to be blunt, would be the only grown-up standing.
• If his health-care alternative takes off and becomes the GOP alternative to Obamacare, he would be at the front of the country’s most important policy battle, one on which the 2016 election may turn.
• If other candidates drink the isolationist Kool-Aid or fail to become serious about foreign policy, Ryan — a Reagan internationalist with a serious demeanor — may be the only plausible commander in chief.
In the end, however, Ryan, like Jeb Bush, would have to want to do this and would have to believe he is the only guy to do it. In the perverse political world, Ryan’s normalcy and regularize-size ego may be his biggest impediments. (Really, what normal person wants to be president?) Nevertheless, sometimes the man and the moment meet. Ryan’s moment may be 2016.