This is the second part of a series on Ryan’s ascent to the Speakership. Part one is here.
There is a natural tendency – especially at Ordinary Times, but elsewhere as well – to characterize the GOP as constantly in search of a hero. Always looking for the next Reagan. Paul Ryan, arguably, was emblematic of this around 2011 and 2012. He became the first congressman to be selected on a presidential ticket in almost thirty years, and the second in well over fifty. A lot of that was his youth, energy, and what was perceived to be his unfailing conservatism. Or something.
Three years later, with Cantor knocked off, Boehner leaving, and McCarthy out, Paul Ryan is once again looked to as the Stalwart of Conservatives. Or, at least, of Republicans. Is this yet another manifestation of the Republicans looking for a hero to save them? Initially, there was some justification for this view. If the idea was that they tap Ryan, Ryan is accepted by the rabble-rousers, and justice is restored to the Kingdom of Elephants. If that was the illusion, it was disabused pretty quickly. And predictably.
It was entirely foreseeable, and I suspect foreseen, that Paul Ryan would be the subject of some immediate pushback. That the guy who was considered Mr Conservative three years ago would suddenly become Not Conservative Enough. Because of course he is. Because of course they would. They could theoretically have declared victory. “See? For all that you fellow Republicans hate us, we replaced a less conservative option with a more conservative one. This is why we fight!” But to have embraced victory would be to embrace responsibility. It would embrace being accountable to those who have no sense of what tangible victory would look like and to people whose only sense of victory is another notch in their belt.
So, it is of no surprise whatsoever that many of the same elements that lambasted Boehner immediately started in on Ryan. It is no surprise that Ryan would become the next pachyderm metamorphosed into a rhinoceros. Many of them have lost sight of who they are fighting, or what they are fighting for. The fighting has become a thing unto itself. The belt-notches have become not a means to an end, but an end unto themselves. They fashion themselves warriors, but have become nothing more than reavers for fun and profit. They imagine themselves heroes, but are more reminiscent of Charlie Sheen shouting “Winning!” and “Tiger blood!”
The Tigerblood Caucus is something of an amorphous group and opinions will differ on who is included and who isn’t. The Tigerblood King Donald Trump has shed some light on this within GOP circles as people sort themselves into camps. As it turns out, almost all of talk radio save perhaps Hugh Hewitt are in the Tigerblood faction. On the borderline has been the House Freedom Caucus, the House’s successor to the nascent Tea Party. The perception is that they are the ones who took down Boehner (or had the power to do so), and so they stood as the principal opposition.
Which brings us to Paul Ryan.
Most politicians, when they say they don’t want a job that they are flirting with, they’re being coy. There are, however, exceptions. Paul Ryan is almost certainly one of them. Further, most indications are that Ryan’s reticence was rooted in precisely the reasons that he gave: Herding cats isn’t his bag. He wants to spend time with his family. Surely, in a House with over 230 Republican members there’s someone else who can do the job?
Except, of course, there isn’t. And so, Paul Ryan. Why Paul Ryan? Because only Paul Ryan.
Which is why he couldn’t easily say “no.” It’s also why I believe the demands he gave were not some ploy to get out of doing the job, but rather because there were limits to what he was and was not willing to do.
The most contentious of these became his desire not to have to so fully envelop himself in the job as previous Speakers have done. This has been criticized (“How dare he put family before country!” says Laura Ingraham) and the criticisms have been criticized (“When did the GOP become anti-family?”). I am sympathetic to where Ryan is coming from on this. Ryan is in a different situation than most former Speakers. Namely, he still has young children at home. And given his past behavior, that does actually seem to be important to him. He was asked to run for president in 2012 and declined. He accepted the Vice Presidential nomination, but he had to be called to it. He would have been in a great position to run for president in 2016 but very quickly and forthrightly shot down any speculation on that. He has said he intends to serve in Congress for a while and then go home (perhaps with lucrative lobbying expeditions to Washington).
That said, my views are – surprisingly – more aligned with the Tigerblood Caucus on this. The Speakership really is a demanding job and a high level of commitment should be required. In any other circumstances, it would and should be an immediate disqualifier. Let the job go to someone that has the time and energy to devote himself to it. Or only let Paul do it with a very strong deputy, which he doesn’t seem to have. I have some pretty strong reservations about his ability to be an effective Speaker, and how long he will survive at the job. Not that he will be chased out amongst screams of “Tigerblood!” but because it seems to be a formula for relatively fast burnout and/or genuine concerns over his ability to balance work and home. But these are not normal circumstances.
There have, of course, also been cries that he lacks the Blood of the Tiger. He’s moderate! He lost in 2012! Loser! We need someone strong! This argument is weaker because, well, there isn’t much in Ryan’s history to suggest that he is especially prone to nascent liberalism. The only thing that stands out is immigration. And here, the criticism is pretty valid. The anti-immigration contingent is stronger in their criticism and rightfully so (given their priors). They believe that they have the support of the majority of the caucus on this issue, which they do. They believe that the national poll numbers indicate that their views are not nearly as unpopular as the conventional wisdom suggests, and they’re not wrong. They argue that there is absolutely no reason to believe that Romney’s poor showing among Hispanics had much of any effect on the outcome of the 2012 race, and it pretty much didn’t. These are not flawless arguments, but they are arguments perpetually waved away by the party.
The anti-immigration faction is scared to death of getting screwed. And they’re pretty much right to be because they probably will be screwed. And Paul Ryan is just the man for that particular job. Even a Republican in the White House won’t help, because the party’s establishment has been itching to line up behind someone with a questionable (from their perspective) history on the subject. They cite the emergence of Trump as a rejection of compromise in this area that is embodied by Jeb, Rubio, and (formerly) Walker. To them the issue is existential, and Ryan is on the wrong side of it.
The border hawks, at least, have tangible objectives that can be debated and measured. They have land which they wish to acquire, or at least not cede, rather than seeking to simply destroy. Paul Ryan tried to make a concession to them, but they deemed it insufficient. That’s all politics. It’s a lot to expect Mark Krikorian (for whom immigration is the issue of our time) and Mickey Kaus (who is a liberal but for a few issues, immigration chief among them) to overlook it and accept the Paul’s relatively minimal assurance. That is the hill they have chosen on which to fight.
The heart and soul of the Tigerblood Faction are not those that would discount Ryan because he is wrong on the existential issue of our time. It’s those who have chosen this issue precisely because Ryan is wrong on it. Because they need to hold on to the narrative of the “GOP Establishment” betraying conservatism. They need not be responsible for considering the actual compromises that make things happen, and the losses that must be endured without going nuclear. They’re people, from talk show hosts to clickservatives to PACs for Profit whose financial interest lies not with yards lost or gained, but bodies taken off the field in stretchers. You can try to compromise with and accommodate the border hawks, or the immigration hawks, or anyone with an agenda and perspective on what is and isn’t possible. You can’t compromise with an atom bomb.
The problem for them, and the essentialness of Paul Ryan, is that out of 230+ members in the House, he is the only one that is bigger than they are. They can try to paint him as a RINO and a sellout, but even in today’s environment some about-faces cause whiplash. They can’t define him the way they did Boehner because people already know Ryan and most of what they knew about Boehner was from the Tigerblood framing of him. And so despite their irritation and exasperation that he came to list his demands and negotiate instead of kiss their rings, the HFC fell into line. And while talk radio is still doing its thing, by all accounts they’re screaming into a void. And a year from now, when Ryan has to do that thing called “governing” they will complain and House members will complain, but nobody is in a better position than Ryan to fight back.
There has been some grumbling among some that Ryan is not an effective spokesperson because 2012 didn’t go as they liked. That Ryan was not able to convince the public that the Romney/Ryan ticket was the right ticket. All of this misses the point, which is that Ryan’s job isn’t to be a spokesperson to the general populace, but to his own caucus. That has become a Republican Speaker’s greatest opponent. That’s the job that the Tigerblood Faction has turned the Speakership into. And Paul Ryan is the only one with a chance of doing it. He has left the Tigerbloods in a position that almost everyone – including people they were trying to draft for the Speakership in recent weeks, is a RINO. He has managed to drive a wedge between the Tigerbloods and virtually anyone else.
Ryan may ultimately fall to the same fate as Boehner, but the prognosis at present is quite good. He didn’t get full compliance with his list of demands, but he has let it be known what his expectations are and he refused to accede to the demands of the HFC before getting a super-majority of their support.. The target of which was not just the House Freedom Caucus, but the rest of the Republican Caucus. Boehner took a bullet for him with the new budget deal that will give Ryan time to more fully entrench himself by the time the debates come up again. Almost everyone is going to be whipping for him in the foreseeable future. In a way that it never was for Boehner, “Don’t **** this up for us” is likely to be the order of the day for Ryan until or unless the Tigerbloods come up with a coordinate a viable way to unseat him. Coming up with plans and coordination aren’t their strong suits.