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Is it already too late?

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Writing for National Review, Jim Geraghty isn’t sanguine about the prospects for a Paul Ryan candidacy should the House Speaker actually be drafted by Republican convention delegates this summer in lieu of the likely losers now vying for the Republican party’s nomination. Still, Geraghty points out that “A well-wired Democrat close to the Clinton campaign [said] . . .  a Paul Ryan nomination would be the ‘nightmare scenario’ . . . . he would likely be stronger than Trump in states like Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin and Ohio.’ He’d be starting politically with a clean slate and lacks the baggage of not getting attacked for months’ like Trump and Cruz. ‘He’s an attractive man, with an attractive . . . family.'”

The idea of Ryan riding to the rescue at a deadlocked convention is starting to gain traction but it’s sending partisans of both current GOP front runners into paroxysms of outrage. Adding heft to the narrative is Ryan’s own recent successful rescue of the House GOP caucus thanks to his agreement to give up chairmanship of the House Budget Committee in order to fill the vacuum created by former House Speaker John Boehner’s abrupt resignation after having been driven out by unyielding, recalcitrant elements in the conservative faction within his own GOP caucus. Paul Ryan initially said he wasn’t interested in giving up his job leading the Budget Committee where he’d been doing some serious work. But he eventually gave in, after repeated pleas by colleagues in the party.

In the New York Times, Jonathan Chait puts a negative spin on a potential Ryan move at a deadlocked GOP convention this summer, suggesting it’s no more than a ploy to advance his own ambitions. “Ryan’s history,” Chait writes, “is to acquire a reputation as lacking ambition even as he rockets up the ranks. His repeated denials of interest in serving as Speaker of the House were, in retrospect, merely a negotiation over the terms under which he’d accept the job.” For Chait it’s as if the mere fact of Ryan’s rise to the Speakership is evidence of venal political ambition which, whether concealed or in plain view, undercuts his claim to sincerity.

On this view, Paul Ryan was always in the running for the speakership, even while saying he wasn’t interested. He was, per Chait, merely playing hard-to-get in order to enhance his clout and prestige in securing the prize, making him, in Chait’s telling, no better than other politicians in terms of personal ambition and credibility. Now, Chait suggests he’s reading from the same playbook. It’s just that Ryan is shrewder about it than those other presidential pretenders.

While Trump and Cruz are exposed in the pure nakedness of their ambition, as is Hillary Clinton who has been running for President among Democrats since stepping down from her post at the State Department in the first Obama term, Ryan is merely playing it cooler than these others.

Yet, when you come down to it, what form of presidential run wouldn’t prompt partisans on either side of the political divide to think ill in this way of anyone challenging their preferred candidate? Just as Trumpeniks denounced Romney, when he came out foursquare against their man, for allegedly wanting the nomination for himself, so any eleventh hour move to bring in a more palatable candidate to carry the Republican banner must inspire the very same sort of narrative. Ryan isn’t likely to get a pass on that.

At some level, of course, it’s perfectly true that Paul Ryan has an interest in the presidency. He must for how could a professional politician on the national stage, who has busied himself with important national issues since his first curtain call, not think the presidency a fit goal to achieve? No one who actually runs for that office at some point doesn’t want it!

Even George Washington did, despite disclaimers before his first run at the founding of the Republic. He ran for and won a second term, after all, when he could have walked away. Abe Lincoln, too, revered in this country as one of our greatest men and certainly one of the most philosophical and genuinely selfless presidents we’ve been blessed to have in that office, actively campaigned for the nomination in his day. He may have won it on a late ballot but he certainly set out to get it. Unlike William Tecumseh Sherman a generation later who categorically eschewed even running for that office, let alone serving in it if elected, Lincoln wanted the office. Politicians, even the decent ones (if you grant there are some), will be in the political game for one reason: to win high enough office to do what they believe should be done. The only concern we must have, as voters, is that our leaders have integrity and competence before we put them there and — that they show both while in office.

So the issue isn’t whether at some level a man like Paul Ryan wants the presidency but is playing hard to get, but whether he wants it so badly that he would sacrifice his personal integrity and the work he has set himself to do, as well as the needs of his own party, to try to get it. Both Trump and Cruz have shown themselves to be driven by a mixture of unalloyed personal ambition and a willingness to bend the truth for votes in their own quests for the highest office in the land, revealing a level of ambition that has manifested in both of them in still other unsavory ways (as a penchant for personal insult and crass put-downs in Trump’s case; as behind-the-scenes shenanigans and shameless senatorial posturing in the case of Ted Cruz).

Against the records racked up by Trump and Cruz, the seriousness of a man like Paul Ryan, who actually set himself to do the work of a legislator and who served, on the national stage, as a spokesman for fiscal probity and entitlement reform, stands out. If Ryan, a professional politician who has ably represented his district in Wisconsin and the nation’s interests for decades, didn’t see value in moving up the political ladder, possibly even to the presidency of the United States, that would be the surprise. The question for Americans is not whether he has ambition but how he chooses to deploy it.

Unlike Donald Trump, who thinks he can bully and bluster his way into the White House, or Ted Cruz whose overweening ambition prompted him — a first term senator with nothing of note to show for his brief stint in Congress — to attempt to leapfrog more experienced and accomplished colleagues by rhetorical grandstanding and obstructionism, Paul Ryan has done the hard work expected of a laborer in the political vineyard. He’s earned the respect and recognition he commands today in the Republican Party by accomplishment — not through rhetorical flourishes and boastful rants.

Contrary to Chait’s New York Times put-down of the guy, Ryan may be just the sort the country needs in the White House now, in the wake of a slow-rolling national collapse on both the global stage and the economic home front — both declines now seemingly set to persist and even gain momentum in a Clinton presidency. If Republicans don’t run a serious candidate with plausibility and the policy bona fides of a guy like Ryan, they might as well kiss the White House and the nation’s federal judgeships (including at the Supreme Court) good-bye. They might as well just get ready for a generational shift to the left which will be all but irreversible. The choice for Republicans today is to run with either Trump or Cruz at the head of their national ticket, with the likely outcome being a third Obama term, or to take one last shot at what had once promised to be fairly lowing hanging fruit at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — but which has now begun to seem increasingly out of reach.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Profile photo of Stuart W. Mirsky
Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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