Jonathan Chait has a point to make despite the clickbaity title:
Paul Ryan is Running for President
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.
What Chait really means is that Ryan’s repeated insistence that he won’t run for president aren’t specific enough. USA Today ran this today in complete opposition to what Chait’s trying to drive home:
Here are just some of the many ways he and his team have said ‘no’ so far:
The Hill, Dec. 12:
“Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong offered a two-word reply when told about the Ryan for President chatter: ‘That’s funny.’ “
CNBC, March 15:
Ryan: “I actually think you should run for president if you’re going to be president, if you want to be president … I’m not running for president. I made that decision, consciously, not to.”
Reuters, March 16, after former speaker John Boehner said he would support Ryan:
Strong: “The speaker is grateful for the support, but he is not interested. He will not accept a nomination and believes our nominee should be someone who ran this year.”
Politico, March 16:
Ryan: “I’ve been really clear about this … If you want to be president, you should run for president. We should select our nominee from among the people who are running for president. Clear and simple. So no, I am not going to be the president. I am not going to be the nominee.”
April 1, 2016:
But Chait suggests that this is just part of Ryan’s personality; he did wind up taking the job of Speaker despite saying he didn’t really want it. Well, okay, I’m willing to go with Chait that far, but this is where he loses me:
What’s more, the scenario under which Ryan would get the nomination is one in which the party has denied it to the candidate who received the most primary votes and to the candidate who received the second-most. The party’s primary task would be to defuse their rage and sense of betrayal. Ryan has positioned himself perfectly for this role. He has reached out to Trump privately, and even his speech calling for elevated public discourse declined to name its obvious target. Trump antagonists like Ross Douthat have flayed Ryan’s timidity, but Ryan is positioning himself as a peacemaker between the Trump and anti-Trump factions.
So if the entire process of nominating a candidate is thrown out because the party doesn’t like the top two contenders, he thinks Paul Ryan is going to be the one who brings peace between the pro- and anti-establishment wings of the party?
Who cares if he reaches out to Trump privately? And wouldn’t not naming Trump in a speech aimed directly at him come off more as cowardly than reasonable? If Trump goes into the convention with the most votes and comes out without the nomination and it’s instead handed to Ryan, Trump’s not going to tell his supporters that everything was according to the rules (even if it is); he’s going to tell them that it was stolen from him. He’ll even defend Ted Cruz at that point. “Can you believe this? Number one and number two guys, and who do they give it to? Paul Ryan? I’m hearing from people, ‘You mean that guy who lost to Obama in 2012? That Paul Ryan?’ This is disgraceful folks, that I can tell you.”
Also, I don’t think Cruz is merely the anti-Trump candidate. He’s genuinely popular. If a Republican voter really wanted to give the nomination to anyone but Trump and they weren’t completely insane, they’d go with Kasich because he at least appears to be a normal guy. But no. Cruz has real support, and it, too, comes not only from Evangelical voters (who will vote for anything red that moves) but from supporters who like his anti-establishment history. That’d be a candidate the establishment rallied behind as an alternative to Trump whom they then dumped once they’d gotten what they’d wanted out of him.
I’m not saying I’d be surprised if the GOP did it—it’s just that that’s a lot of cleanup to do before November, and thwarting the will of an already unstable party electorate whose first- and second-choices were anti-establishment demagogues in favor of the Speaker of the House is a strange way to satiate your base. Sure, level-headed Republicans everywhere would breathe a deep sigh of relief, but it would take a lot of explaining to win back the trust of voters who already don’t trust the GOP.
One of the reasons that Republicans lost both the ’08 and ’12 elections was their failure to generate exciting candidates. In ’08, the far right thought McCain was too moderate, and everyone else tried to pretend as long as they could that Palin wasn’t an idiot. In ’12 they nominated a rich white guy who tried to paint himself as Ward Cleaver—and Ryan was part of that dull as dishwater ticket. Like I said, there are plenty of Republicans who would love a return to normalcy, who would take a seemingly-innocuous Gen X dad over HRC or especially Trump or Cruz. And maybe large swaths of Trump and Cruz supporters would fall in line for him. But he’s not going to excite them. And he’s not going to be the great peacemaker—at least not in time for the election.