Can anybody unite a party that’s at war with itself? That’s the question Republicans are asking, and the answer might be former vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan, whose low profile amidst the intra-party squabbling suggests he is deftly positioning himself as Speaker in waiting or the GOP’s last best hope for 2016—either way a Hobson’s choice given the demoralized state of the party.
Ryan wrote the budget that balances in 10 years, and that helped bring Congress to its knees, unable to find the votes to pass any of its traditional priorities, a farm bill or a transportation bill, much less a kinder, gentler budget that could get Democratic votes. With Republicans holding out for deep spending cuts, Ryan decamped to his Wisconsin district, assuring his constituents that he stands ready to help them navigate the challenges of enrolling in Obamacare even as he pledges to continue working to delay implementing the law.
It’s the kind of balancing act that the 43-year-old Ryan has gotten good at, acting and sounding like the grownup who seeks compromise while still keeping lines open to the Tea Party wing of his party that opposes any accommodation with Democrats. “He knows how to use the words that are magic words for the Right without sounding like some lunatic,” says Norman Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
With the GOP leadership in disarray, Ryan has been unusually quiet for much of this year. A spokesman says he didn’t want to engage the president and indicate any bitterness after the hard-fought campaign. His careful approach can also be seen as laying the groundwork for 2016, as well as preserving his options for moving up in the House should the current GOP leadership implode, which cannot be discounted given the level of rancor in the party.
“The beauty of having run for vice president, you don’t have to spend every single day sweating for headlines,” says Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Republicans know who Paul Ryan is. He doesn’t have to work building his public profile. He does need to work on building his record, and that means trying to accomplish things.”
Ryan distances himself from all talk of a potential government shutdown if members can’t break the logjam. “The only people talking about a government shutdown are looking for political gain, and that’s certainly not Congressman Ryan,” says William Allison, House Budget committee press secretary.
He is quietly pushing immigration reform, endorsing the work of the bipartisan Gang of Seven in the House while stopping short of joining their effort. He favors a piecemeal approach, which doesn’t risk his relationship with the base, says Pitney. “Anybody who wants to be the nominee and president needs both the energy of the Tea Party and the gravitas of the Establishment.”
Unlike Ted Cruz, who a surprising number of Republicans don’t know and who has alienated much of the GOP establishment, or Marco Rubio, who angered the GOP base with his support of comprehensive immigration reform, Ryan is still a darling to all stripes of Republicans. A new Quinnipiac University thermometer poll finds Ryan gets the warmest reception of any potential candidate from GOP voters with a first place 68.7 temperature reading.
Ryan’s ability and inclination to carefully calibrate his policy positions along with his earnest Midwestern demeanor gets him the benefit of the doubt when another politician might be seen as trying to have it both ways. Obamacare is a case in point. Ryan is in favor of limited government, but he also has a responsibility as an elected official to make sure his constituents get what they see as their fair share. The analogy for Republicans, if not the rationale, would be this, says Pitney: “Even if you oppose certain deductions and credits in the tax code, are you going to forgo taking advantage of what’s in the law?”
The five-week congressional summer recess is just getting underway with both sides geared up for battle on Obamacare, immigration reform, and the budget showdown that awaits lawmakers when they return in September. As chairman of the House Budget committee, Ryan set the stage for the looming confrontation with a budget that cuts into domestic programs in a way that Democrats will never support even as Republicans say the cuts are not deep enough. “You can blame him for a lot of this,” says Ornstein. “There’s no way these right-wing crazies will roll back on all these cuts.”
The in-fighting on the Republican side doesn’t necessarily redound to the benefit of Ryan, but by keeping himself above the fray, if there’s a change in the leadership, he’s there, “the last man standing, the only one with at least some gravitas,” says Ornstein. Watching his actions, Ryan seems to be betting that the Tea Party is peaking and eventually will fade. In any event, he’s working hard to maintain his credibility with the national Republicans so that if he does decide to run in 2016, he’ll be in good standing with a party united in its eagerness to defeat Hillary Clinton and willing to call a truce in its ideological squabbles.