Paul Ryan tentatively agreed to serve as speaker of the House Tuesday night, a move that likely avoids a protracted and messy fight to be the next face of the Republican Party — even as Congress teeters on the edge of a series of self-imposed deadlines.
But peel away the plaudits directed at Ryan for his "selfless" and "courageous" decision, and you see that the 2012 vice presidential nominee might pay a severe price for agreeing to take one for the team.
The most obvious problem for Ryan is that the past 160 years ago of political history suggests that there is a congressional path and a presidential path, never shall the twain meet. The last person to be elected president directly from the speakership was James K. Polk way back in 1844. And with the anti-Washington sentiment coursing through the GOP electorate since 2010, voluntarily making yourself the face of Washington Republicans could well foreclose — or at least hamstring — the possibility of being president.
"I'd hate to lose him as a potential contender down the road for the White House, but I — he is such a man of such talent and such integrity and character that he's a real resource for the country," Mitt Romney said of Ryan over the weekend.
But, there are lots of other problems lurking for Ryan.
He has insisted that he be endorsed by all of the various factions of the House Republican conference before he agrees to put himself forward as a candidate for speaker. Let's say that happens — although I remain slightly skeptical it will. So, he's speaker. Now what?
Does Ryan truly believe that, say, the House Freedom Caucus will line up behind him on contentious fights over the next year simply because they voted for him as speaker? This sentence, from The Washington Post's story on Ryan, suggests he does: "Ryan’s allies said his conditions for assuming the speakership were likely to include an understanding that he would have a free hand to lead without a constant fear of intra-party reprisals."
I'm not convinced that's true or, even if it's true today, that it will be honored going forward. The Freedom Caucus has made its name — and increased its influence — by refusing to simply line up behind what leadership wants. Why, suddenly, would they abandon that very effective tactic? Because Ryan asked them to? Or even because they voted for Ryan as speaker? Count me as dubious.
Then there is this condition from Ryan: "Another aim would be to delegate some of the job’s travel and fundraising demands so that Ryan could spend enough time with his wife and school-aged children."
Er, okay. While I commend Ryan for wanting to keep his family time protected, it's a totally unrealistic idea. Without John Boehner, the party's best congressional fundraiser by a mile, who exactly is going to fill the void for Ryan? Donors — especially the big ones — don't want to be asked for a giant check from the guy next to the guy. They want to be in a room with the speaker. Period.
Given that — and the fact that Republicans don't control the White House, the best of all fundraising perches — it's hard for me to imagine Ryan as speaker taking weekends (and nights) (and mornings) off and someone else just "filling in." Being speaker isn't the sort of job you can do on your own terms — no matter the promises that people make you in order for you to take the job.
Ryan, quite clearly, believes that he can do something that saves his party and preserves the parts of his life that he treasures. But the hard realities of politics suggest that the deal Ryan is trying to cut for himself might wind up being a bad one, in the long run, for the Wisconsin Republican.