Could Ryan defy White House history?
No House Speaker has ever been elected president except James Polk in 1844, who had left the Speakership by then to serve as Tennessee’s governor.
That history suggests the odds against Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) being elected president are high.
Indeed, many believed he closed the door on any future White House bid once he decided to run for Speaker last month.
Ryan is now the head of an exceptionally unpopular body, and he will be a political lightning rod for criticism.
Yet some Republicans are pushing back on the narrative that Ryan is done for good as a White House hopeful, arguing that if anyone can defy history it is the youthful new Speaker.
During his two decades as a congressman and staffer in Washington, the Wisconsin Republican has proven himself a skilled politician and gifted communicator. His conservative budgets made him an intellectual leader of his party, and he already has presidential campaign experience from his 2012 vice presidential run.
Ryan is just 45 years old, meaning time is on his side.
And Republicans say the unpredictable nature of today’s presidential politics show the danger in reading too much into history.
“Anybody who thinks he can predict these kinds of things is foolish. If [Ryan] brings our party together and he brings a positive agenda, I don’t think it does anything but boost his chances to be the nominee of the party” down the road, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the two-time presidential candidate who captured the GOP nomination in 2008, told The Hill.
“Just by stopping the turmoil that has characterized the situation over there, by sheer force of his personality and his reputation,” McCain said, “he can enhance any other ambitions that he has.”
Al Cardenas, a former top Republican National Committee official who’s close to both Rubio and Bush, said the 2016 cycle is good news for future unorthodox presidential aspirants. Two outsiders, celebrity businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, are currently leading the GOP field.
“Anything is now possible. You can throw assumptions out the window,” said Cardenas, who like Ryan attended Tuesday night’s GOP debate in Milwaukee. “It depends on performance, but if Paul Ryan can be credited as the leader who broke the impasse, he will have a great chance at the big prize.”
Impasse is a polite way of putting where things stand with Congress, and many believe Ryan will experience the same problems as predecessor John Boehner in seeking to reconcile his conference. Open intraparty warfare between bomb-throwing conservatives and entrenched establishment Republicans has ripped the GOP apart in recent years.
Just this fall, conservative lawmakers — backed by conservative outside groups and talk radio — pushed Boehner into an early retirement and blocked Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from succeeding him as Speaker. Last year, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was unceremoniously ousted in his GOP primary by a little-known, Tea Party economics professor named Dave Brat.
It’s now fallen to Ryan, a close political ally of both McCarthy and Cantor, to unite the fractured 246-member conference and try to heal the wounds. He’s giving long-ignored, rank-and-file conservatives more say in the decision-making process and more seats at the table. But while both sides have agreed to a brief détente, Ryan knows his elevation to the top job in the House makes him the next target of conservatives.
Like Boehner before him, Ryan is sure to face a barrage of attacks, from the right and the left.
Many observers respected Ryan’s decision to run for Speaker all the more given the likelihood it could cripple his hopes of running for president.
“Like Yogi Berra says, ‘If there is a fork in the road, take it.’ He took it. I think it was a heck of a sacrifice on his part,” said one leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “I think it was on everybody’s minds that at some point, Paul, who is young, telegenic, articulate, a voice for Republicanism, that he would be in the mix [for president], if not this time, certainly next time.”
“It was an incredible sacrifice.”
Ryan has insisted a future presidential bid isn’t in the cards. In a recent interview with CNN, he acknowledged that 2016 probably offered the best opportunity to run for the White House. But he didn’t pull the trigger earlier this year, choosing instead to remain at his dream job leading the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
“If I really wanted to be president, I would have run in this cycle for the presidency,” Ryan said. “I had the chance and opportunity to do so and I chose not to do that. I’m perfectly happy and content with this decision” to be Speaker.
But just because Ryan says “no” doesn’t mean it will never be. When McCarthy unexpectedly dropped out of the race for Speaker last month, Ryan quickly issued a statement saying he had never sought the job and would not be a candidate for the leadership post.
A month later, the former Capitol Hill aide from Janesville, Wisconsin, was elected the 54th Speaker and the youngest to hold the job in nearly 150 years.
Those who’ve known Ryan for decades say he’s singularly focused on enacting good policy — overhauling the U.S. Tax Code, reforming entitlements, and restoring upward mobility for the poor. It’s never been about angling to run for this office or that.
“Here’s what people don’t understand about Paul: He is here in Washington to do something, not to be someone,” said Cesar Conda, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and Rubio who gave Ryan his first job in Washington on the Senate Small Business Committee in 1992. “The office he holds doesn’t matter so long as he can achieve his policy goals.”
A Ryan presidency would not be “impossible,” said Conda, a founding partner at Navigators Global.
“It will depend on whether he can get his agenda enacted as Speaker over the next few years,” Conda added. “If he cannot, then I could imagine him concluding that the presidency is the platform to achieve his goals.”