Depending on whom you read, Speaker Paul Ryan wants to be president, and/or set the GOP platform, and/or protect the GOP brand and his House majority. (More)

“The most plausible explanation for this….”

Speaker Ryan has been very busy lately, releasing campaign-like videos about his values and agenda and touring the Middle East to discuss his foreign policy vision. That has a lot of people convinced that Ryan hopes to be nominated at the GOP convention:

In 1884, Republicans desperate to hold on to the White House turned to William Tecumseh Sherman, the heroic Civil War general. Sherman’s reply – “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected” – has attained a fame nearly equal to that of his military feats, in part because historical memory has reworded it in more poetic form (“If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve”). If Paul Ryan does not want the Republican nomination, he will make what we call a “Shermanesque statement.” Despite numerous opportunities, he has failed to do so. The most plausible explanation for this is that Ryan does, in fact, covet the nomination.

The theoretical scenario plays out like this:

  1. GOP convention delegates vote to modify or waive Rule 40, which currently requires the nominee to have won a majority of delegates in at least eight state primaries or caucuses.
  2. Donald Trump does not secure a majority of delegates from the primaries, and is rejected on the first ballot at the GOP convention in Cleveland.
  3. Ted Cruz is rejected on the second ballot.
  4. John Kasich, who would be eligible if Rule 40 were waived and has not yet suspended his campaign, is either rejected on the third ballot or pushed aside by party leaders.
  5. Instead, party leaders propose Ryan and a majority of delegates vote him the GOP nominee.

If that plan seems brimming with umm-uhhs, it is, as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall explains:

We’re starting to see Donald Trump move into full “I’m being cheated” and “the system is rigged” mode as Cruz makes more progress on the ‘dark delegate’ front and perhaps makes progress in the polls too. Trump is starting to sound both literally and figuratively like a loser. But remember, for this to play out how the big party stakeholders want it to they’ve got to steal it from Trump AND Ted Cruz. Yes, both. That seems awful, awful hard to me.

Setting aside the certain explosion of outrage from the GOP base, this all hinges on Ryan’s willingness to be nominated. When pressed by talk show host Hugh Hewitt, the Speaker’s demurrer was almost-but-not-quite Shermanesque:

I do believe people put my name in this thing, and I say get my name out of that. This is, if you want to be president, you should go run for president. And that’s just the way I see it … I think you need to run for president if you’re going to be president, and I’m not running for president. So period, end of story.

That sounds an lot like “absolutely not” to me. But Speaker Ryan did not rule out accepting the nomination in Cleveland, and thus many still believe he’s being coy.

“He is running a parallel policy campaign”

Or maybe not. Maybe he would spurn the nomination even if the GOP establishment’s Rube Goldberg plan actually played out. The New York TimesJennifer Steinhauer offers another motive for Speaker Ryan’s not-presidential-campaign:

Mr. Ryan is indeed at the center of a national campaign – one he calls “Confident America” – but it is not necessarily for president.

While Mr. Ryan has repeatedly said that he has no intention of becoming his party’s nominee this year, he is already deep into his own parallel national operation to counter Donald J. Trump and help House and Senate candidates navigate the political headwinds that Mr. Trump would generate as the party’s standard-bearer – or, for that matter, Senator Ted Cruz, who is only slightly more popular.

Mr. Ryan is creating a personality and policy alternative to run alongside the presidential effort – one that provides a foundation to rebuild if Republicans splinter and lose in the fall. “He is running a parallel policy campaign,” said Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.

He is shaping an agenda that he plans to roll out right before the convention, a supplement of sorts to the official party platform.

In this theory, the Speaker hopes to set a policy platform that other Republicans can campaign on and win, even if the GOP nominee gets crushed in the presidential race. His platform will probably not match the one approved by delegates at the convention. Steinhauer notes that Ryan disagrees with the GOP base on issues ranging from trade to poverty to immigration. He would offer “a tamer, more domesticated conservative message” that, he hopes, will be more palatable to people who don’t vote in GOP primaries and are not convention delegates.

“He is neither serious nor honest”

But that relies on journalists following Steinhauer’s lead and continuing to mistake Ryan for a serious policy wonk, as Paul Krugman explains:

Hype springs eternal – certainly when it comes to Paul Ryan, whose media image as a Serious, Honest Conservative and policy wonk seems utterly impervious to repeated demonstrations that he is neither serious nor honest, and that he actually knows very little about policy. And here we go again.

But what really amazes me about the latest set of stories is the promise that Ryan will finally deliver the Republican Obamacare alternative that his colleagues in Congress have somehow failed to produce after all these years. No, he won’t – because there is no alternative.

Krugman goes on to why the GOP has no alternative health care plan. Simply: the only policy solutions the GOP likes would leave tens of millions of Americans without access to health care.

“Magical-realism”

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait is even more biting:

Some of the differences between Ryan and the declared candidates are real. Unlike Trump and Cruz, Ryan supports the party’s business wing on international trade and immigration. He is pragmatic about political messaging and tactics, and understands that doomed kamikaze legislative maneuvers or gratuitously insulting key demographic groups ultimately sets back the conservative cause. Also on display in today’s story is Ryan’s well-honed talent to conjure an imagined, impossible version of his own policy agenda and present it as reality.

The magical-realism version of the Ryan platform involves heaping doses of empathy and wonkishness. As always, the evidence for this lies not in any concrete commitments but in promises lying somewhere over the horizon. The key passage from today’s Times story: “For example, if the Republican nominee does not provide an alternative to the Affordable Care Act – something Republicans have failed to do since it passed in 2010 – Mr. Ryan intends to do so, just as he will lay out an anti-poverty plan.”

Note the “intends to,” a phrase that captures Ryan’s uncanny ability to have his assurances taken at face value.

Chait echoes Krugman’s analysis on the chimerical GOP health care plan, and then turns to Ryan’s oft-promised, never-yet-delivered anti-poverty plan:

A similar reason prevents Ryan from detailing his “anti-poverty plan.” In this case, the problem is Republican fiscal math. Ryan and his party are ideologically committed to massive tax cuts – indeed, Ryan reiterated not long ago that he would refuse to support any tax-reform plan that did not relieve the burden on high earners. They are likewise committed to maintaining Social Security and Medicare for anybody 55 and up, which by definition rules out any cuts to their budgets over the next decade. Ryan has also proven unwilling to implement deeper cuts to the discretionary budget – the funding stream for agencies that, for the most part, are not redistributing money from rich to poor, the largest being the Department of Defense – which is why he has twice agreed to raise the funding caps on that pool of money. That is why Ryan’s budget relies on massive, disproportionate cuts to spending programs that help the poor. Sixty-two percent of the cuts in the Republican budget come from programs aimed at helping people with low incomes. (Those programs account for less than a quarter of all program spending in the federal budget.)

Ryan has gone to enormous lengths to demonstrate to the national media that he truly and deeply loves poor people and wants what is best for them. But however Ryan feels about poor people in his heart, the boundaries of his policy commitments lead inescapably to the result that he is going to massively reduce the amount of money the government spends on helping poor people. If Ryan didn’t share these priorities, he wouldn’t be the leader of the Republican Party, and insiders would be casting their eyes somewhere else for an alternative to Trump and Cruz.

But the media continue to judge Speaker Ryan by his words, not the policies he offers, and Lawyers, Guns & Money’s Scott Lemieux says Ryan’s image survives through “an iron law among a certain kind of journalist that there must be a Serious, Moderate Major Republican, and when the competition is the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan gets the gig purely by default.”

In other words:

  1. Unicorns exist.
  2. A major GOP leader is a unicorn.
  3. The major GOP leaders are Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Paul Ryan.
  4. Neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz is a unicorn.
  5. Thus, by process of elimination, Paul Ryan is a unicorn.

The logic is impeccable. If only the first two premises weren’t complete fantasy….

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Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

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Good day and good nuts