Paul Ryan is running for president in 2016 because he’s running for president in 2024. That is a simple fact. Ryan knows he can’t win the nomination in 2016 — the last time a losing VP candidate was nominated in the succeeding presidential cycle was Walter Mondale in 1984, and Mondale had at least been vice president. Ryan knows that he won’t even be on the ticket in 2016 — he failed to deliver his home state and even his home town, and doesn’t have an apparent constituency within the party. So why is he (poorly) feigning an interest in urban poverty and shaking hands in Iowa and New Hampshire?
Back in November 2013 I predicted that Ryan would refuse to be considered for House Speaker before the midterms, because he knows that the speakership is a politically terminal position, one that necessitates controversy, divisiveness, and — worst of all for a presidential primary — compromise with the other party. If you want to alienate moderates and activists in your own party and become the nation’s second-most reviled political figure, House Speaker is the perfect job. If you want to be president, don’t go near it. Chair a committee. Lead a think tank. Even parlay a VP-slot pick on a failed ticket. Just don’t be Speaker.
It was clear months ago that Ryan would have to shoot down any Speaker murmuring early and often and thus nip a draft movement in the bud. And so, Ryan did just that.
In January, the Wisconsinite declared he did not want to be Speaker. But why doesn’t he want to be speaker now, one might ask. Ryan, of course, needs a plausible excuse to not answer his party’s call, unite an ungovernable GOP caucus, and seize a tangible opportunity to push his own agenda. Were Rryan a pragmatic true believer, he might challenge John Boehner and shift the GOP in line with his own right-wing doctrine. But Ryan wants to be president some day, and so the only way to preserve his future presidential potential is to run a losing 2016 campaign as an excuse not to be Speaker.
Sounds a little wacky? How? To say there are no calculations behind a politician’s professional rise is naive. Paul Ryan is not stupid, and there are plenty of “reasons” to ascribe any presidential run that are less cynical than the one I present:
• Ryan supporters could claim a long-shot 2016 run will raise his name recognition? (That’s not really true. The GOP base that votes in primaries knows his name and likes him just fine.)
• Ryan supporters could claim a 2016 run helps him build a national network of donors? (Unlikely. Ryan’s natural moneyed constituency is the GOP mainstream and the Kochs. The GOP Establishment donors will only rally behind Ryan if he’s the only electable and trustworthy guy in a field of yahoos — i.e. Romney 2012, Dole 1996 — and the Kochs also obey the Buckley Rule, though they probably will support Ryan and Walker’s potential veepship and would offer Jeb Bush big help if he took one of them on.)
The only other real upside to the eight-term congressman of running, besides meeting and greeting Iowa and New Hampshire activists and avoiding the Speakership, is putting the idea of a President Paul Ryan into Americans’ heads. That’s what Rand Paul did back in 2011 when he said he might run for the 2012 GOP nomination, despite his father’s obvious second candidacy. That’s what Ted Cruz has done since the day he was sworn into the Senate. But with rival GOP stars emerging with every passing election, Ryan will have to run every single time there is a non-incumbent GOP president in order to keep reinforcing his presidential-ness. (I know ‘presidential-ness’ is not a word.)
And that Paul Ryan must now always run for president — to stay relevant, to stay presidential — is what makes Paul Ryan our generation’s Bob Dole. Just look at the similarities.
1. Elevation to a ticket well a bit too early makes for an imperfect national introduction:
A hotshot staunchly right-wing (for their time) policy wonk young gun from a flyover state is picked by a faltering presidential nominee who needs conservative credibility with a base that nearly took him down during the nomination. The VP pick proves competent but uninspiring, not offending the GOP base, but hardly rallying it either. The ticket loses.
2. The first presidential attempt:
Well-liked in his party but not altogether a galvanizing figure, Dole ran in 1980 and got creamed so bad it became his own running joke in his 1988 campaign. With Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and John Anderson dominating their respective ideological bases, Dole wound up a non-factor.
Well-liked in his party but not altogether a galvanizing figure, Ryan will run in 2016 and lose so invisibly it will only be a joke in his 2020 campaign if he chooses it to be. With Jeb Bush (the eventual nominee), Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul dominating their respective Republican bases, Ryan is simply a non-factor.
3. The second run where he really wants it:
In 1988, Bob Dole had been a good soldier throughout the entire Reagan Administration, eventually ascending to Senate Majority Leader until the 1986 elections. At that point, the Senate losses didn’t affect his in-party standing: party thanks to Iran-Contra, Dole was leading George H.W. Bush in the polls. Unfortunately for Dole, Bush eventually routed him, forcing the Kansan to once again play Senate good soldier for a man who had defeated him in the presidential primary.
Ryan’s second run will come in 2020, against an incumbent President Hillary Clinton. However, should Jeb Bush be elected in 2016, then Ryan’s second run will occur in 2024. I believe that Jeb Bush’s VP nominee will be Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, but let’s first pretend that Ryan’s second run takes place in an open-field 2020. In that case, I believe Ryan runs very hard but ultimately loses to Rand Paul, who then loses to the incumbent Democratic president. In a post-Bush-2016-victory scenario, Ryan runs in 2024 against a host of other GOP contenders, but still loses to either an institutionally-supported Vice President Portman or a movement conservative.
4. The third presidential run where most of America has forgotten the VP run and sees a much older version of a guy they met two decades before. America now sees a man who wants to be president just to finally be president:
With House and Senate majorities on the line and no credible alternatives for president, a post-Contract With America GOP that lacked clear leadership coalesced around an uninspiring and uncharismatic Bob Dole before the nomination could be captured by Pat Buchanan. Dole tried his best but American voters did not want to reverse Clinton’s course, nor did they want to restore the previous generation to the Oval Office. Few remembered that this was the same guy who had run with Gerald Ford in 1976, and only knew him as a perennial candidate and two-time nomination loser from a bygone era.
Ryan makes one or two more pushes for president, either in 2020 against an incumbent President Hillary Clinton, or in 2024, 2028, or even 2032. I don’t see him running in three consecutive cycles, but no matter how many cycles he enters or sits out, after two he’ll be seen as a guy with eyes solely on the Oval Office. Even if he wins the nomination, it will only be thanks to an unelectable field of rivals and a GOP Establishment concerned about down-ticket races. Ryan will never be president because he is a last-resort nominee — a Dole, a McCain, a Romney (I’m not paraphrasing Ted Cruz here!) — a competent politician who is the most plausible president but who has never had a movement nor inspired one.
Bob Dole is now remembered as a politician who probably would have been a decent president but who simply could not fight the intra-party political realities of his era. Dole was arguably a better politician than George H.W. Bush, a man whose presidential ambitions would never have been met had the stars not aligned to make him Reagan’s VP pick. By the time Dole got his shot at topping the ticket, his politics and he himself were too outdated, just too old. His loss wasn’t shameful but it also wasn’t unexpected, and since 1996 he has sunk into our collective memory as a semi-arcane factoid.
And how are they different?
Paul Ryan, unlike Bob Dole, will not be remembered, even by political buffs, as a man of presidential timber hindered by a couple unfortunate political realities. Whether one agrees with his politics or not, Dole had the makings of a president: War hero, long record, mastery of process, and a predilection for — not an aversion to — non-presidential leadership. Dole was legislatively ambitious enough to assume his party’s most visible non-executive role, even though the position was fraught with political danger. The Kansas senator knew that if he did a great job as leader, he could engender intra-party support and power, with the potential side-effect of becoming a popular national figure. In a world of Reagans and Bushes, Dole would need that support to finally win the nomination. Ryan could have every House Republican behind him, but he refuses to take a chance.
It may be unfair to consider Ryan a political coward for not seeking the Speakership in order to preserve his presidential ambitions. Perhaps, after a career nurtured by presidential and vice presidential also-ran Jack Kemp, Ryan always held a vague idea that he himself could win the presidency some day. Then, after 2012 this feeling was more than affirmed thanks to his VP selection and a 2011 draft effort by the right-wing intelligentsia. Sure, the 2010-2011 Ryan presidential hype was born of a desperate GOP Establishment, and yes, Ryan’s selection by Romney hardly indicated indicate a groundswell of pro-Ryan sentiment, but still: Ryan is right to think that he’s one of about twenty-five Americans who can make an attempt at the presidency and succeed. It would be weird if after the 2012 election Ryan’s ambitions weren’t totally focused on the presidency. He’s just severely miscalculated how much he needs the House GOP and how he’s squandering his only source of potential strength.
Whether he’d been the 1976 VP nominee or not, Dole always wanted to be president. He wanted it for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from ideological to political to personal. Read Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, and you’ll meet a man driven by a unique ambition that’s nearly impossible to describe or understand. You won’t for a second doubt why Dole ran, why he needed to run. And therein you’ll find the real, true difference between a man like Bob Dole and a man like Paul Ryan: Dole was always right to consider himself presidential material; Ryan has never had what it takes.