Paul Ryan left Washington last week with a decision to make.
Even as the House Ways and Means chairman repeatedly declared he would not seek the speaker’s gavel, rank-and-file members were relentless. House Speaker John Boehner approached him. Many members dropped his name on cable news and hailed him as the only man for the job.
Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told reporters that if Ryan jumped in, he’d happily step aside from his own planned run. It created an illusion in Washington that Ryan is singlehandedly holding the Republican Party back from reunification.
But even Ryan may not be able to save his party from itself.
The most conservative members in the House of Representatives—those who identify themselves as part of the Freedom Caucus—are not looking for a policy visionary nor a leader to emerge from a speaker’s race. They are looking for a magician—a speaker who jams through balanced budgets, holds the line on the debt ceiling, and defunds Planned Parenthood with a Democratic president in the White House. And no one, not even Ryan, is capable of being that kind of political unicorn.
“This is a completely different kettle of fish,” says John Feehery, a GOP strategist who served as a spokesman for former Speaker Dennis Hastert. “I think Paul is widely respected by most Republicans, and even the Freedom Caucus guys like him, but I don’t know if anyone is going to be pure enough.”
Ideologically, there may be little space between Ryan and conservatives, but there are deep divisions between Ryan and the conference on tactics.
“I think he can unite the conference as well as anybody can,” says Rep. Tom Cole, a member close with Boehner who has encouraged Ryan to run. “He is also pragmatic, so if you want someone who is going to play fast and loose with keeping the government open or defaulting on the debt, you are going to have some disagreements.”
As Budget chairman, Ryan earned the respect of some of his party’s most conservative members in the early days of the tea party by authoring waste-slashing budgets. Stylistically, Ryan’s upheld many of those relationships and he’s earned a reputation of being a frank and honest negotiator. But when it comes to earning the ire of conservatives, Ryan’s been there too.
Rewind to 2013. Ryan had just crafted a bipartisan budget deal with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray that reduced the deficit but also relaxed several sequestration spending caps. While Boehner applauded the effort and many Republicans in Congress voted to get it over the finish line, conservative groups like Heritage Action and Club For Growth came out swinging against it. In the end, 169 Republicans voted for it and 62 Republicans voted "no" in the House.
Earlier this year, Ryan’s conference was once again divided over his efforts to grant the president fast-track authority on a historic trade agreement. The bill gave Congress a voice, but only an up-or-down vote. For months, Ryan orchestrated listening sessions to attract support for the trade deal and educate members on what they were considering, and he lobbied them in one-on-one meetings. The exercise reaffirmed Ryan’s ability to convince a large swath of his conference, but Ryan was not able to unite everyone. Some conservatives dismissed the deal on the basis that it empowered President Obama. Others rejected it because of conservative news reports indicating that the trade deal was full of changes to immigration policies. Even Ryan could not quell all those concerns.
Those in the establishment see Ryan as the most likely unifier. They point to his accomplishments in Congress and his uncanny ability to explain and convert members on complicated policy proposals. But the Freedom Caucus may not be any more willing to swallow political reality with Ryan at the helm than they were with Boehner as speaker.
Already, members are calling on speaker candidates to make a slew of impossible promises. Members want the next speaker to promise not to punish members who vote against the party line in the Rules Committee or on the floor. They want a leader who doesn’t lead, but merely follows their directions.
“My concern is the same with all the potential speakers. I want a less dictatorial approach to operations in the House,” says Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama. “I want there to be more respect for individual members, and I abhor a process where members who are in good faith, voting as they believe is necessary and best for our country, are punished by the leadership.”
When asked if he thought Ryan would be any different than Boehner or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who dropped out of the speaker's race last week, Rep. Dave Brat, another member of the Freedom Caucus, said “that’s a huge question.” Brat said that even if the next speaker can make the House work again, the Senate rules also need to be reformed so that Democrats cannot block conservative legislation using the filibuster.
“We’ve got a problem,” says Brat, who unseated former Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary last year. “Republicans own both chambers.”
Rep. David Schweikert, a conservative from Arizona, says the media misses the point when it pretends that Ryan will bring the conference together.
“It’s not about the man. There is a fixation in the press, because it is intellectually lazy, about the person and not the policies and procedures,” Schweikert says.
Rep. Justin Amash, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, says that “Paul Ryan would be a more acceptable candidate than the current leadership team primarily because he is not in the current leadership team,” but that to act as if Ryan is a renegade outsider is to ignore his rapid rise from wonkish policy scribe to the GOP’s vice presidential candidate.
Ryan might very well win the speaker’s election if he were to run, but the second he holds the speaker’s gavel, he will become a leader. And in today’s Republican Party, the speaker is enemy No. 1, no matter who he or she is.