Paul Ryan feels pinched by competing paths to power.
His friends tell us the most obvious route -- a run for the White House in 2016 -- holds less appeal to him with each passing day. "He has no interest in the sheer grind of campaigning," said a conservative who recently spent time with Ryan. "It's hard to see him having 'what it takes.'"
Instead, Ryan seems increasingly intrigued with the prospect of amassing more power within Congress, using his juice in the House leadership to promote his trademark Medicare plan and engineer spending cuts. The friends say this path could ultimately lead him to an eventual run for House GOP leader, or even speaker, an option they surmise he has warmed to since the election.
Ryan associates say he has been surprised at how central his governing role has been among House Republicans since returning from his failed run for vice president. He was instrumental in cooking up the GOP's new debt ceiling strategy and will craft a budget plan that sets the direction for the GOP caucus on virtually every consequential issue. With this in mind, he now calculates that naked national ambitions would only dilute his growing power as Speaker John Boehner's unofficial wing man.
At the same time, Ryan continues to cultivate a national political and financial network that would serve him in any role. A top GOP source said Ryan recently huddled with Spencer Zwick, Mitt Romney's fundraising guru, who made plain much of the 2012 donor base stands ready to back him if he were to ever warm again to a White House run. Ryan also made a fundraising trip to Texas last month for his Prosperity PAC. He was hosted by top Romney donors who urged him to run, convinced he has been totally vetted and passed the readiness test.
Some conservatives suggested Ryan challenge Boehner right after the election -- something Ryan would never do. But, in those conversations and others, longtime associates of Ryan noticed a subtle but significant change in his mood. He seemed open to ultimately running for leadership, suggesting to two friends that this was the best and safest way to get Medicare and budget cuts done.
He would never challenge Boehner or his No. 2, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for their current jobs. But many Republicans think Boehner will leave in a few years, perhaps after the 2014 election, to make way for the next generation of leaders. The safest path of all would be his current trajectory: Run the Budget Committee until 2014 and then take over the Ways and Means Committee, to do to tax policy what he did for entitlements and spending.
Publicly, Ryan's handlers say he has given little thought to running for leadership. Will Allison, the House Budget Committee's press secretary, emails: "Congressman Ryan is focused on his job as chairman of the House Budget Committee." The handlers have to say that, though, because if Ryan shows any public signs of wanting a job Cantor wants, it greatly complicates his political life in Congress. At the same time, it's in Ryan's self-interest to keep the 2016 speculation very much alive, because it gives him a nice public platform and enormous clout that might fade if he were to ever rule out a run for the White House.
The best clue to Ryan's future ambition was the year-end vote to raise taxes. Ryan worried that if he didn't vote against the tax increase, he would be on the wrong side of the most important domestic issue for conservative voters. He would also be on the opposite side of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the unofficial front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2016 who voted against the increase.
Ryan probably had the power to sink the tax increase himself if he had voted against it and pressured his allies in Congress to do the same. After a number of tortured conversations with his advisers, Ryan decided to vote for it.
In doing so, Ryan did a huge favor to Boehner -- and revealed what has become one of the more important alliances in Congress. "He wants to be a responsible actor, and Boehner has been relying on him a lot," said one prominent Republican who talks often to Ryan. "Paul is not moving to screw or eclipse Boehner, so the speaker trusts him. He's a wonk, and he genuinely enjoys governing. He still has the status to bring along most or all of the conservatives. And he has a higher profile, in many ways, than the speaker of the House."
Worth noting: Cantor, who one day wants to be top dog among House Republicans, was on the opposite side of Boehner and Ryan on the tax vote.
Ryan needs Boehner's trust to navigate his growing set of policy ideas through the House. His budget plan will include specific cuts to bring the federal budget into balance in 10 years, nearly two decades sooner than his previous proposal.
It would take one helluva salesman to run for president with a highly specific plan to privatize Medicare and gut scores of government programs that a bunch of voters somewhere benefit from. "He wants to be serious about governing, and he takes seriously the fact that Republicans have a majority in the House," said Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a part of Ryan's think tank brain trust.
Levin pointed out that the fiscal cliff deal "makes Ryan more important," because it puts the House and Senate budget processes at the center of negotiations that under other circumstances would be driven by the White House.
Ralph Reed, the evangelical political leader, says that influence will extend to immigration reform as well. Ryan has expressed support for many of the leading reform ideas put forth by Rubio but has privately expressed regret that the Florida senator backed lumping them into one, sweeping plan. "Ryan's street cred on the right goes back 20 years," Reed said. "It's not just philosophical. These are close, personal working relationships that give him a unique role and make him indispensable."
Ryan, after lying low after the election, is in the middle of a carefully choreographed publicity tour. In it, his potential and limitations have been glaring. In a roundtable with reporters at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel last week, Ryan spent nearly 90 minutes in the budget weeds. At the wonky affair hosted by Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel and Washington bureau chief Gerald Seib, Ryan was pushed repeatedly on his new pledge to balance the budget in 10 years. He spent most of the time on the defensive, trying to convince a skeptical bunch of reporters that he could do that without a tax increase or any major entitlement reforms that would take effect in that time period. He sounded like a guy auditioning for a job at The Heritage Foundation, not the White House.
Ryan's speech at the National Review Institute summit two weeks ago -- and subsequent appearance on "Meet the Press" -- were memorable mainly for his unusual public embrace of a strategy based on "principled prudence." This sounds like a bad book or something the Catholic nuns would tell you to practice in grade school. The slogan and his performance captured Ryan in his true comfort zone: fighting policy fights from the Hill, not the trail.
"Paul will never say he's not running for president, because the constant speculation carries too many advantages," said the longtime friend. "He'll keep answering the question in a way that will keep nosey political reporters interested. He's trying to be politically smart, without having anyone piece it together."
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