Paul Ryan has built his career on the idea that he can lead Republicans to the fiscal promised land of limited government by rewriting the country’s tax code and overhauling entitlement programs he contends are drowning the nation in debt.
Choosing to run now for speaker in the chaotic, fractured House is no way to achieve those goals. That’s why when Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced last month he would step down as speaker and the Draft Ryan pleas began, the former vice presidential nominee’s answer was a resounding “no.”
The Wisconsin Republican is instead sitting back and playing the long game by holding on to the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in hopes a Republican occupies the White House in 2017 and he can finally begin making a reality out of his big policy ambitions.
“I’m a policy guy, so I think I can do the most good for the country at Ways and Means,” Ryan said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday. “It’s the job I always wanted, and it allows me to focus on the issues that are really important for our future.”
Left unsaid is that there are a lot of very good reasons not to want to be House speaker right now, especially for someone who has goals that go beyond climbing the leadership ladder.
The House GOP Conference is fractured, with a group of conservatives in open rebellion, and there is little chance Republicans can achieve legislative victories while President Obama is still in the White House.
Indeed, being in the House leadership now has as much a chance of being a scarlet letter as it does a badge of honor given the mood of House conservatives and the party’s base.
To his colleagues and friends, it’s no surprise that Ryan is choosing to sit this race out despite his deep popularity within the conference.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, said that Ryan has always wanted the job he has right now.
“Paul has never changed his story to me,” said Nunes, a close ally of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) who is the current front-runner to replace Boehner. “We’ve worked on these big roadmap reform ideas for years. He feels he’s in a position, and I agree, he’s in the best position to make those happen… assuming we can get a Republican president elected.”
Other colleagues note that an added drawback to jumping into the leadership fray is it would make it harder for Ryan, 45, to travel home, keeping him away from his wife and three children.
“There is no question about him and his leadership potential,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.). “But he said [leadership] is a job for an empty-nester and I know he considers his job as chairman as one of the most important jobs in the world.”
Despite Ryan’s familiar protestation that he is a “policy guy,” he is not without political ambition. He was his party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 and briefly entertained the idea of running for president before announcing he wasn’t interested earlier this year.
But his focus in Congress has always been on sweeping changes to programs like Medicare and Social Security and cutting taxes by simplifying the code, issues all under the jurisdiction of Ways and Means.
Ryan has spent his first nine months as committee chairman rallying members to think long-term, recognizing the only chance he has to achieve his policy goals is to have a Republican replace Obama in the White House. He started the year with a meeting in Virginia where members spent three days talking about what they could do in six-months, one year, two years and four years from now.
He has also picked his spots to collaborate with the president and some Democrats.
Ryan worked with the White House and Republican leaders earlier this year to pass fast-track trade negotiating authority and spent the past several months working with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on an international corporate tax reform proposal that could raise funding for transportation projects, an idea that is now on hold.
In the past, Ryan has also jumped into budget fights and tried to find compromise.
When he was Budget Committee chairman in 2013, he worked with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to reach a bipartisan budget deal that lifted the deep-cutting sequester spending caps.
Still, some of his colleagues, even those from the most conservative wing of the party, can’t stop musing about a House Speaker Ryan.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the head of the special Benghazi Committee who has been pushed to run for majority leader, said he wishes Ryan would jump into the race, but understands why he won’t.
“To me, just speaking as one member, the smartest kid in the class is Paul Ryan,” Gowdy said on Monday. “If I had one draft choice and I was starting a new country, I would draft Paul to run it. Not because I agree with him on everything, but because he’s super, super smart. And when someone is super, super smart and is not interested, that tells you something. It tells me a lot.”