Few politicians in Washington are better at bending the news media to their ends than House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). This was on full display last week, when Ryan released a brief video excerpting a speech he gave pleading for a more noble and less divisive politics. The video looks a lot like a campaign ad, complete with swelling music and shaky-cam:
The reaction from the media was swift: It's a campaign ad! Paul Ryan wants to be president! Which, of course, enables Ryan to say, no no, I'm just getting my ideas out there, and this just happens to sound like a rebuke of my party's presidential frontrunner. But with everyone talking about the possibility of a contested Republican convention in July, Ryan's is the name most mentioned as the white knight who can ride into Cleveland, unify the party, and bring them their only chance of victory in the fall.
In some ways, this narrative is right. Ryan is running for president. Just not this year.
Things could barely be going better for Ryan. An incredibly ambitious politician, he's managed to rise all the way to speaker of the House at age 46 while maintaining the fiction that he isn't really ambitious, he just cares about issues. He played the reluctant savior when becoming speaker, proclaiming his lack of interest in the job, which made Republicans bow down before him in supplication before he finally, generously agreed to heed their anguished cries. And now something similar is happening with the GOP nomination: He says he doesn't want it, which makes his fans all the more eager for him to deliver them from the Trumpian catastrophe that awaits in November.
It's kind of an inverse of Groucho Marx's quip that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member: Only by saying you aren't interested in leading Republicans can you demonstrate that you're worthy of taking that mantle.
Ryan has said that the nominee should be someone who put in the work of running for president, even if there's a contested convention. He surely knows that polls show the vast majority of Republicans agree. He also knows that saying so won't stop the speculation, since everyone remembers how he said he wasn't interested in becoming speaker. And the news media is obsessed with the idea of a gripping convention fight, a story in which the possibility of Ryan's nomination will continue to play a central role.
There's something else Ryan knows: There's not much upside to being the Republican nominee this year. Just think about what has to happen for him to become the nominee. Donald Trump would have to fail to get a majority of delegates. Ted Cruz would then need to fail to assemble a majority as they move through ballot after ballot in Cleveland. And then in the end, the party leaders would need to unite around Ryan. Trump's voters would be enraged that the nomination had been stolen from their champion, and whether or not we'd see riots at the convention (as Trump predicted), there's a strong chance that many of Trump's voters, disgusted with the outcome of the primaries, would stay home in the fall. That's not even to mention the tremendous harm this primary campaign has done to the Republican brand, particularly with minority voters. That's a condition that might be ameliorated eventually, but not this year. With a fractured party behind him, it would be exceedingly difficult for Ryan to win, especially if the economy continues to gain strength.
So the best outcome for Ryan is as follows. He turns away all the entreaties, remaining noble and above the fray. Then the party, led by Trump or Cruz (or maybe even someone else) goes down to a crushing defeat in the fall. Even if that happens, Republicans will probably hold on to the House, making Ryan the most important Republican in the country for the next four years, leading the charge against yet another President Clinton.
The most important lesson many will take from the GOP's 2016 defeat is that come 2020, they need to nominate a strong conservative, but one who isn't so irresponsible, unpredictable, and eager to alienate large swaths of the electorate. One who's serious and sober. One who knows how to govern, not just throw bombs. One who calls us to something higher, and who can actually win.
And who could fit that bill? Why Paul Ryan could!