Paul Ryan will avoid 2016 election and keep control of party
Few people can deny that this has been one of the most interesting and confusing election seasons in recent history. Anti-establishment rhetoric is finding a larger audience than ever before in both parties. While Bernie Sanders rails against Wall Street on the left, Donald Trump engages in open rebellion and threatens violence against the political elite on the right.
This puts Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House and effective leader of the Republican Party, in a very difficult position. In a campaign so dominated by anti-establishment sentiment, Ryan happens to be the most prominent face of the establishment. Considering the target that this paints on his back, he has conducted himself with dignity and poise. If there’s anything that the past year has demonstrated, it’s that Ryan has one of the sharpest political minds in the country. He has demonstrated an uncanny ability to smoothly maneuver through ugly situations and shape the conversation in such a way that he might just emerge from this mess stronger than he was going in.
Consider how Ryan got the job. Late last year, John Boehner abruptly announced his resignation and decision to step down within the next month. Boehner’s pick, Kevin McCarthy, was seen as the successor and received wide support, including from Ryan himself. When McCarthy abruptly withdrew his name from consideration, the attention fell on Ryan. Initially, he refused as well. It was only after a multitude of endorsements from across the Republican spectrum, including the ever-rebellious Freedom Caucus, that Ryan reconsidered and took the job. He managed to land the most respected position in the establishment, without any sort of campaign, all while managing to paint himself as the reluctant white knight.
As Speaker, Ryan has been brazenly assertive this election season, even going so far as to directly rebuke his own party’s candidates. When Trump suggested a blanket ban on Muslims entering America, Ryan didn’t mince his words — he made it clear that such ideas weren’t what the Republican Party, or conservatism in general, stood for. Later in the campaign, when Trump failed to disavow an endorsement from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Ryan went so far as to say that Trump would not be the Republican nominee if he didn’t unequivocally reject the bigotry and racism that Duke stood for. Such standoffs have created a sharp line in the sand between Trump and Ryan.
Never in the modern era has there existed such animosity between a party leader and the party’s front runner this late in the primaries. If Trump successfully gets to 1,237 delegates, he will be the Republican nominee for President. How would he approach not being supported by the party leader? One can never be sure with Trump, but if his statements are to be taken at face value — very confrontationally. How would Ryan approach a situation like this? He’d like us to believe that he would support the nominee, even if that happened to be Trump. That said, make no mistake, Ryan will do everything in his power to prevent Trump from getting the nomination.
What Ryan is probably hoping for, and what seems increasingly likely, is that Trump falls just short of securing 1,237 delegates. In this scenario, Ryan becomes surprisingly powerful and his options become far more interesting. The ensuing brokered convention would essentially allow the party elders, led by Ryan, to play kingmakers and choose the next Republican presidential nominee. Given this choice, Ryan would likely make sure that anyone but Trump gets the nomination; a Trump candidacy is so polarizing that the general election would be lost at the starting line. Further, making Trump the spokesman of the party alienates everyone besides his core base away from the GOP for a generation.
What does Trump do in a situation like this? Nobody expects him to go quietly into the night. He might either try and sabotage the campaign of the chosen Republican nominee or, more likely, launch a third party bid for President. Trump supporters aren’t the traditional Republican voter base — some of his positions, such as those on trade and healthcare, are decidedly un-Republican. In a theoretical three-way general election, Trump’s votes could eat into both Democrat and Republican shares.
This would result in a very interesting and potentially disastrous general election if no party gets a majority. Although Ryan wouldn’t want this, his bigger priorities are in the more distant future.
In any situation where Trump doesn’t get to 1,237 delegates, the chosen Republican nominee would enjoy a small to negligible chance of winning a general election. Going up against Trump and Hillary Clinton in a brutal three person race is also likely to end the political career of whoever takes up that mantle. Keeping that in mind, Ryan has just the candidate he’d want for the nominee — Ted Cruz. He is a firm second to Trump in the primaries, making him a legitimate contender that doesn’t have to be parachuted in at the last minute. He also happens to be a subject of derision for the establishment. Republican senator Lindsey Graham once joked that if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you. The vast majority of the Republican establishment wouldn’t be too sad to see Cruz go. With Cruz gone and a good four years till the next presidential nominee, Ryan suddenly has breathing room to shape the party in his image as its sole remaining strong leader.
A surprising amount of ink has been spilled on speculation that Ryan might attempt to engineer a situation where he himself becomes the nominee. He has repeatedly, in increasingly strong language, denied any interest in being the nominee. And yet, fairly enough, people point to how he rose to become the Speaker of the House as evidence of the trustworthiness of his denials. His predecessor, John Boehner, has openly called for him to be given the nomination.
Yet, this time, it’d be very surprising if he tried the same reluctant acceptance tactic that worked so beautifully last year. Simply put, being the Republican nominee in this election is political suicide, and Ryan understands this. He lacks the support of the base. He’d be ripped to shreds by Clinton and Trump. In a campaign so dominated by anti-establishment rhetoric, how can he expect the people to accept the Speaker of the House?
Paul Ryan is not running for President. He has, for all intents and purposes, written off the 2016 election for the GOP. That said, he is running a campaign — a campaign that likely leads to his emerging as the only remaining strong voice within the GOP with the ability to “save” his party from extremists like Trump.