April 13, 2016
If you’re tired of the speculation over Paul Ryan getting installed as the GOP nominee after an extended convention battle, he’s given you at least a temporary reprieve. Today, he gave his Shermanesque statement. He’s not running, will not accept the nomination, and thinks only candidates who participated in the primary process are eligible.
That should at least buy him a few weeks. It’s understandable why the speculation developed. Plenty of Republicans would like a non-Trump, non-Cruz option. Fourteen candidates have already exited the race. John Kasich is floundering.
Twelve months ago, there was a surplus of plausible GOP nominees. Not now. The likelihood of a contested convention lets everyone dream about unconventional options. Ryan was on the ticket in 2012, he’s reasonably well vetted. He was opposed to running for speaker. He’s currently the speaker.
With the caveat that 2016 is shaping up as an unprecedented presidential cycle; every time is supposedly unique, but it’s really true this round, Ryan’s logic in removing himself is sound. Let’s travel back to 1884.
This was the year famed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman was considered a possible option for the GOP. Ever since his 1864 march to the sea through Georgia, which helped clinch re-election for Abraham Lincoln, Sherman was a hero throughout the North.
He’d remained in the Army after the war, becoming General of the Army after Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868. After a decade and a half in the role, he stepped down in 1883, and was a tantalizing prospect for Republicans.
The party had won six straight presidential elections since 1860, but the previous two were razor thin. In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by a few points, but Hayes triumphed in the Electoral College. It was a controversial outcome, but that’s a story for another day.
In 1880, Hayes declined to run again. Several candidates jockeyed for the nomination before the convention turned to Congressman James A. Garfield as a compromise choice. At this point, Garfield is best known for getting assassinated, but he’s also the last president to get elected directly from the House.
He also won very, very narrowly. Try less than 2,000 popular votes nationwide. By this point the GOP was hanging on to the White House by their fingernails. After Garfield’s death, VP Chester A. Arthur took over. He’s likely the least qualified president in American history.
Prior to getting thrown on the ticket as yet another compromise, he served as Collector of the Port of New York, a patronage job President Hayes fired him from. Arthur would have struggled to win the nomination for 1884 under the best of circumstances, but he pushed through significant civil service reform, pissing off anyone who might have otherwise supported him as a patsy.
So there was a vacancy. James G. Blaine wanted the nomination and eventually got it, but many Republicans had qualms. He’d failed in 1876 and 1880 for exactly that reason. After being nominated, he lost the election, validating the concerns. He’s also the last ex-speaker to get selected.
Before the party ultimately gave up and chose Blaine, Sherman was the great hope. He had zero interest, famously saying “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” In his case, he was done with major public responsibilities. For Ryan, it’s likely he thinks entering the presidential fray will get in the way of his ambitions.
We have trouble figuring out what Ryan wants because he’s a bit of a hybrid. Over the past several decades we’ve seen promising politicians choose a congressional track or a presidential track.
As mentioned above, nobody elected directly from the House since 1880. Nobody with Speaker of the House experience nominated since 1884. Governors get elected and nominated. Vice Presidents get elected and nominated (more easily nominated.) Inconsequential senators get elected and nominated.
Important senators get nominated, but lose. Think Bob Dole. A young House member has a couple of options if they want to get ahead. Run for the Senate, or run for governor if you want to move up. Otherwise, enter the House leadership and become a powerful committee chair, or work your way up from whip to majority leader to speaker.
People like Sam Rayburn and Joseph Cannon have House office buildings named after them. They weren’t presidential prospects. Richard Russell got his name on a Senate building but wasn’t a threat to get nominated. Some try to leap the gap, but wind up falling short like Dick Gephardt did in 1988 and 2004.
For Americans of a certain age, Tip O’Neill is your image of a speaker. He wasn’t a presidential prospect. This isn’t Ryan. Several prominent Republicans encouraged him to run in 2012. He passed, but Mitt Romney put him on the ticket.
Many considered him a top 2016 prospect before candidates began declaring their intentions. He passed again. Ryan is relatively young and may just want to wait until his kids are a few years older. Or he really might not want the job that badly. Either way, he’s passed up running twice.
Before that he passed up multiple opportunities to move to the Senate or run for governor. His career choices are not in line with someone who is planning on occupying the White House. This doesn’t mean he has limited ambition. He is the current speaker and took the job after establishing conditions. He’s the youngest speaker in well over a century. He ain’t that shy.
But his political mentor was Jack Kemp, who accomplished quite a bit from the House, specifically in regards to tax policy, a passion of Ryan’s. He’d attained his goal of becoming budget committee chairman. However, the House was in disarray. Speaker Boehner had lost control.
When Ryan took the reins, I mentioned his future and Marco Rubio’s were intertwined. If he got off to a good start, it would show it was possible to balance the needs of movement conservatives, Tea Party/Freedom Caucus types, and the establishment. A Rubio coalition would walk the same tightrope.
Similarly, if Marco got off to a good start in the primaries and caucuses, it would signal to the House that GOP voters were up for the Ryan approach. Well, here we are. Ryan can’t get the Freedom Caucus on board with his budget, and Rubio is licking his wounds at home.
Keeping the House in one piece is plenty for one person to worry about. If he hadn’t recused himself from the presidential contest, his task would become even more difficult. He may not want to run for president. Even if he does, he may not want to now. Even if he does, he might not think it’s that plausible. His only move was to shut the conversation down.
What about the trip to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu? What about the media visibility, the issue platform he keeps promising to release? While these are things a presidential candidate might do, and include things previous speakers have done and things they haven’t, it also makes sense as part of his non-standard path.
You can call it an updated version of Kempism. You can call it movement conservatism for the modern era. Detractors say it’s a pseudo-conservative sellout to the establishment. Regardless, Ryan has pushed tax reform, deficit control, entitlements reform, along with various opportunity initiatives for years.
Many of these items are not being addressed in the current campaign. Whether to attempt to push the eventual nominee in his direction, or to give GOP congressmen safe harbor under a Trump ticket, there’s a purpose for driving an agenda of his own.
He’s more telegenic than O’Neill and Gingrich. More housebroken too. Because this doesn’t look like what we’ve seen before, it’s natural to assume he’s gunning for the presidency, especially when various establishment figures would like nothing more.
Sometimes it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and is actually maybe a goose. After two terms of President Grant, General Sherman looked like Potential President Sherman, when he was actually Retired General Sherman. Quack. Quack.