Last Young Gun Standing
About sixteen months ago, fresh on the heels of Eric Cantor’s humiliating primary defeat, I predicted that Paul Ryan would soon be shaking in his boots. Lo, it has come to pass.
At the time, Cantor’s fall seemed to be the misfortune of one man, done in by his own hubris and inability to read the political tealeaves. Now, it seems that Cantor was merely the first domino. Kevin McCarthy ascended to the post of Majority Leader when Cantor resigned; now, he is the latest heir apparent to be weighed, measured and found wanting by the Republican conference.
And what does the conference want? It’s really anyone’s guess at this point. The House Freedom Caucus (HFC), the group of about 40 far-right representatives that is itself a splinter group of the right-wing Republican Study Committee, controls enough votes to deny any candidate for Speaker the requisite 218-vote majority. Depending on who you ask, HFC either wants a more bombastic speaker willing to shutdown the government and default on the debt over “conservative” principles, or wants a milquetoast speaker who will give the fire-breathers more control over strategy and tactics. It’s probably fair to say the other 205 members of the Republican conference want someone who can raise absurd amounts of money that will end up in their hands.
Which brings us back to Paul Ryan, who is Goldilocks of the House – extreme enough on the issues to placate the Tea Party, respectable enough for the Republican establishment, and a proven raiser of funds. The only problem is that Paul Ryan has seen this movie before, and he wants no part of it. Some sympathetic stories cite Ryan’s stature as a policy wonk and family man as the reasons for his reluctance to take the top job, but since he is a politician we can safely assume that self-preservation is his motive.
I don’t blame him. Speaker of the House has become the most thankless and impossible job in Washington, though it should be noted that Ryan, McCarthy and Cantor planted the seeds of today’s dysfunction five years ago. That’s when they cast themselves as a Tea Party triumvirate poised to ride a disaffected conservative wave into power. In true Washington fashion, they wrote an obnoxious book about it. The Republicans did end up winning the House in 2010. It’s been disaster ever since.
In hindsight, I’m sure the authors of Young Guns regard the book as some sort of monkey-paw curse, with talismanic power to ruin lives and undo careers. Having unwittingly invited wolves into the fold, they and the rest of the conference are victims to their own machinations. Apparently, no one told them not the feed Rep. Jim Jordan after midnight.
Paul Ryan, like an apprehensive survivor of a dwindling tontine, must decide if averting an untimely end to his career means avoiding the Speakership or volunteering as tribute. For what its worth, I think he should turn down the job for his own sake. It is widely suspected that Ryan has ambitions beyond the House; taking the helm would mean that the next time the tea party bell tolls, it may very well be for him.