Paul Ryan’s confidants see it as one of the great, strange conspiracy theories of 2016. Somehow, by deciding against running for president, and repeatedly saying he has no interest in running for president, Paul Ryan is secretly running for president.
Raising money in New York? Ryan is running! Except it’s just a National Republican Congressional Committee event with rich GOP donors. Met with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem — he must be fortifying his foreign policy chops for the Oval Office. Except the trip was long planned, and most senior politicians — and many no-name, back-bench members of Congress — get an audience with the Israeli prime minister.
His staff released a bunch of well-produced videos, so he must be running. Actually, Ryan said when he ran for the speakership that he would step up his communications apparatus. Then there was the Donald Trump criticism — of course he was preparing to take on the New York mogul! In reality, Ryan and other top Republicans not running for president want to ensure the party they’ve dedicated their adult lives to isn’t transformed by Trump.
In fact, in Ryan’s universe — among the small group of insiders who know Ryan’s thinking firsthand — the sentiment is resolute: Ryan will not accept his party’s nomination. He simply doesn’t want to be president right now. One aide said “over my dead body” would Ryan emerge from Cleveland with the GOP nomination. In an interview with Politico last month, Ryan was perplexed that the issue hadn’t been put to bed, saying, “I am not going to become the president through Cleveland.”
Ryan’s orbit firmly believes that, in a few months, everyone will look at this bubble and realize just how ridiculous it was.
They say the national media are misreading his moves. Even if Ryan did have an itch to run for president, he could not swipe the nomination from a front-runner with 1,000 delegates, give or take, or a field of 17 candidates that spent months and millions of dollars vying for the job. If Ryan wants some sort of future in Republican politics, he cannot be seen as going to the party convention in July and stealing the nomination from Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Every public utterance has stoked the 2016 speculation. Yet Ryan promised at the outset to have a communications-focused speakership. He’s followed through with a nearly endless stream of television and radio appearances, and a series of well-produced videos from his in-house videographer. Much of what Ryan is doing isn’t aimed at cultivating a following for a national ticket — but it does help Ryan’s House Republicans focus on something other than Trump.
Ryan did sound a similar reluctance about running for speaker. But his aides point out that there were no other options besides the Wisconsin Republican, who is just now beginning to get his groove with the gavel.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that Ryan has no interest in the job, he has not managed to convince many people that he’ll take a pass in July. On-the-record comments by Ryan haven’t worked in tamping down the flames. So Ryan’s team has had to put out word to top Republican officials that he is not an option for the nomination this time around.
Of course, Ryan isn’t saying he’ll never run for the White House. If Hillary Clinton wins — most Republicans in Congress are convinced she will — he might take a look at a 2020 bid. But even then, those close to him aren’t convinced he’d take the plunge.
One thing is certain: Ryan does not want to be president right now. In 2014 and 2015, Ryan was seen as a leading contender for the White House, and he deliberately took a pass.
The backdrop of all his denials is the political reality that Ryan would likely lose. Most public polling has him faring relatively poorly in a potential matchup with Clinton. Of course, polls shift, but Ryan would be forced to launch and run a presidential campaign in three months. His experience from 2012 would help, but even the most talented campaigner would be at a disadvantage on such a compressed timetable.
Of course, there’s a touch of wishful thinking involved in the narrative. Current projections have Trump getting trounced by Clinton, and Cruz doesn’t fare much better. Gov. John Kasich, who says he would do the best against Clinton, has won only his home state of Ohio, leaving him an outside shot at the nomination.
Ryan, who as speaker will preside over the convention, is beginning to plan to campaign in August. Following in John Boehner’s footsteps, he’ll use the month not to campaign for president, but to hit the road for House lawmakers as he tries to keep the chamber in GOP hands.
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