What’s the best job security Paul D. Ryan can hope for, even if the Republican malcontents hold their fire long enough and he becomes speaker of the House?
That would be one year. Fourteen months, at the outside.
Coming to that realization was surely part of what happened during Ryan’s week of contemplation back in Wisconsin. So his willingness to consider taking the big gavel must mean he’s at peace with the notion his speakership could end up among the shortest in history.
Reversal: How Paul Ryan Became Speaker of the House
That is, unless his unstated plan is already about moving up on his own terms — and then, assuming those don’t carry the day for very long — moving out on his own terms as well.
And that may well be in his most enlightened self-interest: By shedding the penultimate power post in American government quickly and on his own timetable, he would still be in position to pursue the No. 1 job.
That’s the role he’s clearly aspired to from the outset of his political career, and the timing for taking his shot at the presidency could be just right.
This is especially true if Democrats hold the White House next fall, dispiriting the Republicans and probably assuring their House majority continues its default oppositional posture toward anything coming out of the Oval Office.
Then Ryan could give up on being speaker at the end of the 114th Congress, with the magnanimous-sounding declaration that the rebuilding of the Republican Party must be done from without, not within.
He could establish his political re-engineering practice at home in Janesville, Wis., and bet that he’ll become the party’s anointed one on the strength of four years of speechmaking about economic liberty, federal fiscal discipline and compassionate social conservatism.
In the summer of 2020, he’ll still be just 50 years old. And his by-all-accounts genuine concern about being present during the childhoods of his kids may be fading; daughter Liza will be 18 and getting ready for college, while sons Charlie and Sam will both be in the heart of their teenage years.
Another version of this Machiavellian scheme might work even if a Republican is Barack Obama’s successor. Of course, Ryan might be tempted to see if he and a president of the same party could collaborate on restarting the legislative engine. As likely, he’ll decide to get out before those expectations fail to get realized.
Assuming the new president will need to be given space to seek re-election, Ryan would be required to delay his national aspiration to 2024. And eight years is an eternity in politics, no more so than for someone outside an official spotlight.
But the governorship of Wisconsin is up in 2018, and Ryan’s genuinely good friend Scott Walker may be so spent in the job that he’s ready to try to bequeath it to someone he trusts.
(While seven incumbent governors have won the presidency, the post has been held by just one person who was a House speaker. That was James K. Polk, who relinquished the job in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee for a term before launching his run for president.)
These scenarios rest on the assumption that Ryan will soon enough become exhausted and infuriated from his labors at stanching continued infighting.
Almost all the supercharged conservatives, mainstream conservatives and sometime moderates may promise to hold their fire through Friday, Ryan’s deadline for seeing the state of unity he requires. And they all may sit on their hands through next week, allowing him to be nominated by his colleagues and then elected without drama by the whole House.
But after that, there’s essentially nothing in this decade’s history of the Republican Conference to support the belief that its 247 members would remain unified in public — let alone in private — for very long.
The grumblings already emanating from hard-right advocacy groups will grow into howls of anger as soon as the House advances legislation with even the slightest centrist tinge, and the House Freedom Caucus folks will soon enough feel compelled to rise to that bait.
The confrontational crowd, many of them freshmen, gave John A. Boehner a honeymoon of only a month as speaker in 2011 before engineering a budgetary revolt that signaled their tail had the power to wag his dog.
Ryan may be able to obtain their acquiescence for a while longer, even to the point of their backing away for an entire year from their talk about motions to “vacate the chair” whenever they’re dissatisfied with a move by their nominal boss.
But those conservatives and their clamor for an egalitarian leadership and “regular order” can almost be counted on to produce another contentious fight over the speakership next fall.
The time for choosing the GOP candidate for speaker in the 115th Congress will be at the conference’s organizational meetings the third full week of November 2016, just days after the next election.
If he stands down then, or gets moved out, Ryan’s time as speaker would be up after about 430 days, when the new Congress convenes. Only six of the 53 people who have occupied the chair have held it for less time, and all of those 19th century leaders have dissolved into obscurity.
Ryan has avenues for proving himself the exception.