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Opinion The Ryan Test: Do Republicans want to be martyrs or winners?

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) after meeting with the House Freedom Caucus on Oct. 21. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Having tested the thickness of the political ice, Paul Ryan seems convinced it will support the weight of a House speaker. Given the nature of the Republican coalition (in parts fractious, restless and heedless of political reality), he will end up in the water. But perhaps not immediately, and perhaps not until after considerable accomplishment. The most knowledgeable, thoughtful conservative in the House is now likely to lead the House, which is the sign of an institution still capable of random acts of sanity. And the manner of Ryan's victory is worth considering, because it is the only way that Republicans will regain the presidency.

What might be called the Ryan Test — give me a meaningful job with a reasonable prospect of governing success and a shot at personal happiness or leave me the hell alone — applies most immediately to the workings of the House. In consultations with GOP colleagues, the Wisconsin representative has made clear that he wants to empower committees more than the leadership, while also making the speaker less vulnerable to challenge.

Rather than an inconsistency, this is an expression of Ryan’s broader political outlook. He is proposing to strengthen mediating structures — in this case, committees that allow members to exert influence and make their voices heard — within an institution capable of, and interested in, governing. The weakening of committees in both the House and Senate has been a source of dysfunction, encouraging frustrated, angry, political freelancing — and crackdowns on political freelancing that cause further bitterness.

But the Ryan Test has a larger application. Ryan is essentially asking conservatives within the GOP: What is your actual goal? Is it to govern in the public interest according to a conservative vision while building a political coalition capable of supporting needed reforms? Or is it the expression of outrage, rooted in a right-wing populism that is in fundamental (and continual) revolt against the political establishment?

This has been the main question posed to Republicans since the wave election of 2010: governing or rage? The fault line is clearest in the choice of political enemies. For some conservatives, the politically ascendant and intellectually exhausted liberalism of the Obama era is the target. For others, the real enemy is a Republican establishment complicit in a corrupt political order — a GOP establishment that "reflexively surrenders on every issue" (in the words of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.)) and must be razed before anything good can grow.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced that he would run for House speaker only if his set of demands was met. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

The House Freedom Caucus has exemplified the demolition option. During the past five years, some 30 or 40 House members took up permanent residence off the reservation, denying Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) an effective House majority. Cruz has been their instigator. Conservative media, particularly talk radio, have provided incitement and attention. Some of these legislators, no doubt, are acting out of conviction. But at least some of their zeal has come from the fear of primary challenges from the right, which has left self-preservation to masquerade as principle.

Now a clear majority of the Freedom Caucus has come out for Ryan, the peppy poster child for the governing option. This accommodation will quickly be tested on the debt ceiling and next year's budget. Will the whole conference unite behind an approach to governing that doesn't rely on showdown and shutdown politics?

Right now House Republicans are providing a lesson to their party, which is being roundly ignored by the Republican presidential primary electorate. The two current front-runners, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, are favored for their complete lack of governing experience. The main qualification to be president, apparently, is a lack of relevant qualifications. This is generally not the way airline pilots, neurosurgeons or speakers of the House (apparently) are selected, but voters can employ whatever criteria they wish in choosing the commander in chief.

Republicans should, however, be under no illusions. They are currently failing the Ryan Test. Trump is the truest RINO on the GOP savanna. He has no background or interest in governing. He has one thing to offer: a talent for outrage. And for many Republicans, this (so far) has been enough.

The movement that stands to lose the most is conservatism. Maybe the GOP's back to the future is 1964, when Republican primary voters chose the candidate of outrage, Barry Goldwater, who promised "extremism in the defense of liberty." The anti-Goldwater landslide entrenched the Great Society in American life. A right-wing populist who loses the 2016 election in a landslide would entrench Obamacare and the rest of President Obama's legacy.

Ultimately, to govern is to win.

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Read more:

Jonathan Capehart: Here’s why you better fear the crisis over the debt ceiling

Paul Waldman:Shutdown fight may again shake up GOP presidential race

Kathleen Parker: Don’t do it, Paul Ryan

Ruth Marcus: Donald Trump and the anger of conservatives

Michael Gerson: Paul Ryan’s appeal to America’s heart