You probably read the headline of this piece and thought: "Cillizza really is as dumb as he looks." After all, how could Paul Ryan be getting a raw deal? He's the choice of almost every Republican in the country to be the next speaker of the House.
Allow me to explain.
Here's the situation in the wake of the stunning implosion of Kevin McCarthy's bid for speaker Thursday: There is both a massive power vacuum within the House GOP and an exposed wound in the long-running knife fight between the party establishment and the tea party base.
One big thing that all Republicans agree on is that Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who served as Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate in 2012, is the only one who can fix things — even temporarily — for the party.
Ryan, thanks to his annual budgets that make hard choices about where money is spent (and not spent) by the government, has convinced hard-core tea partyers that he is motivated, fundamentally, by conservative principle. The establishment has long seen him as a national star in waiting, putting him where he wants to be — at the moment as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee — to keep him as happy as possible.
The other big thing that all Republicans agree on is that Ryan does not want to be speaker. Within 30 minutes of McCarthy's failure to secure the votes he needed on Thursday, Ryan was out with a statement reasserting — as he did when John A. Boehner announced his planned resignation two Fridays ago — that he had no interest in the top job.
"Ryan is genuinely interested in public policy," a well-connected former top House GOP staffer told me when asked to explain Ryan's resistance. "That's what motivates him. The speakership is a management job — and a tough, complex and unrewarding one. You have to spend much of the day — every day — saying 'no' to your friends."
Add those two big things up and you are left with an unstoppable force (the push for Ryan to be speaker) meeting an immovable object (Ryan's oft-stated resistance).
The prevailing sentiment in Washington over the last 24 hours has been that while everyone understands Ryan doesn't want the job, they also believe he will take it for the "good of the party." This tweet — from Michigan's Fred Upton — channels that line of thought:
Let's say Ryan thinks some more about it but then decides that his initial resistance to being speaker was the right instinct. Given the "take one for the team" mentality that seems to have rapidly cemented around the idea of a Ryan bid and the near-certain prospect of a chaotic race for speaker without Ryan in the race, you can be sure that there will be grumbles within the GOP conference that the Wisconsin congressman really only cares about himself.
That's totally unfair, of course, since Ryan has been very clear that he did not want to be speaker — under any circumstances. But politics can be an unfair business, and if Ryan says "no" under the current circumstances, there will be those (and it won't be just a few people either) who forever label him as selfish and not a team player.
And what if Ryan acquiesces to the calls from, well, everywhere, to be speaker? He moves into a job that he doesn't want — and that might well be impossible, even for someone like him who enjoys a strong reservoir of goodwill among his GOP colleagues, to succeed in. Yes, Ryan might have a bit of a honeymoon period, but he is not exactly out of central casting as a tea party hero, so it's not too difficult to see the same group that has troubled Boehner eventually doing the same to Ryan.
Plus, serving as speaker — unless it was a very limited stint to get the party through crisis — would not forward what I believe is Ryan's long-term ambition: being president. While Ryan plays coy about what he really wants for his political future, it's clear that the House might not be the be-all, end-all for him. If it was, he wouldn't need to be cajoled into at least thinking about seeking the speakership. Ryan didn't want to run for president in 2016 but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to run in 2020 or even 2024. Remember, he is only 45 years old. (And he did run for vice president.)
If Ryan does want to be president, speaker looks like a cul-de-sac on that road — at best. The last speaker of the House to be elected president was James K. Polk way back in 1844. And in a political environment in which Republican voters hate Washington, do you really want to voluntarily become the official Republican face of the nation's capital?
Ryan is being backed into a corner here. His choices are run for speaker, which he doesn't want to do and could hurt his long-term political prospects, or don't run and be cast as a self-serving egotist.
Neither of those choices is particularly appealing.