We here on The Fix have made the case that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), if he were to run for House speaker, would be taking on a thankless job that is very likely to short-circuit whatever other ambitions he has for the rest of his political career. Being speaker in today's GOP, quite simply, is asking for trouble.
But if there's a good way to go about doing it, Ryan seems to have found it.
According to reports Tuesday night, Ryan told House Republicans that he would pursue the job if -- and only if -- three key groups of House members, spanning the party ideologically, endorse his candidacy.
Report our own Robert Costa and Mike DeBonis:
“He’s willing to serve,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Issa explained that one condition for Ryan running was support from all three factions of the House GOP Conference: the moderate Tuesday Group, the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and the conservative Republican Study Committee.
According to several Republican colleagues in the room at the time, Ryan said: “I’m willing to take arrows in the chest but not in the back.”
This is politically very smart, for a few reasons:
1) It gives Ryan an out
This is a guy, after all, who has made pretty clear that he doesn't want to be speaker. Given that, if there is literally any discord over his potential ascension, he can blame it on other people and bow out. 'The votes just weren't there,' etc.
And the Freedom Caucus -- the source of the current uncertainty over the next speaker -- previously backed Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), so it remains a real question whether it will back Ryan.
Webster, for what it's worth, says he's still running.
2) It takes away the Freedom Caucus's ability to vote against something
The conservative/tea party wing of the GOP today has made its mark by, as much as anything, being the opposition. It resists any kind of compromise, and when it shakes things up by voting against the GOP establishment and throwing a curveball -- as in the case of would-be-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) -- the GOP base eats it up.
Recent history suggests that, even when it comes to someone otherwise known as a strong conservative like Ryan, the opposition will be quickly fomented. The conservative Web site Breitbart, in particular, has run a series of stories pretty clearly aimed at undercutting Ryan and assuring he's not conservative enough on issues like immigration reform. This, of course, comes despite the narrative back when Ryan was chosen as the GOP's vice presidential running mate in 2012 that his pick was aimed at exciting the GOP base.
Ryan is giving these groups the opportunity to reject him before he even runs -- a considerably less sexy set of circumstances for members anxious to stick it to the GOP establishment. They still might reject him, but it won't carry the drama of a floor vote or even a declared candidacy. Things will play out in the coming days, and Ryan will assess them.
3) He's playing hard-to-get
It's quite simply human nature to want something you don't yet have. As the ever-so-eloquent Mitt Romney once put it: "The unavailable is always the most attractive, right? That goes in dating as well."
Ryan has been playing hard to get, and he's not about to relinquish that. Here's what he said Tuesday night, per Costa and DeBonis:
“I don’t want to be the third log on the bonfire,” Ryan said, in a reference to [resigning House Speaker John] Boehner and McCarthy, according to Republicans who were inside the private meeting.
On running for speaker, Ryan said: “I hope it doesn’t sound conditional … but it is,” he said with a smile.
He also reiterated concerns that this will negatively impact his family time -- going so far as to say he won't spend so much time traveling the country to raise money for his party.
Translation: 'It's not a done deal. If you guys want someone to take this on, so be it. But I don't need this. And you need to prove you want me first.'
Whether the GOP conference will prove it, of course, remains to be seen. But Ryan is covering his bases and making his party come to him. That's a smart posture -- even as it remains an open question whether Paul Ryan will be the next speaker of the House.