Paul Ryan Is Not Running for President Because He Knows His Party Is Falling Off a Cliff

"Wait, Trump said what?"

“Wait, Trump said what?”

Today, House Speaker Paul Ryan is supposedly going to make an announcement that he’s formally ruling out a presidential run in 2016. Ryan has made this same denial in the past, but as Donald Trump’s delegate numbers flag below the necessary 1,237 votes to get nominated on the first try at the Republican National Convention, Ryan’s name keeps getting floated as a possible last-minute nomination. There is a recent historical precedent for this kind of move; Ryan, you’ll remember, didn’t even run for his current position of House Speaker; it was basically handed to him once John Boehner quit and every other Republican who aspired to the Speaker position turned out to be terrible. 

Why Ryan, though? Why do Republicans enthusiastically nominate Paul Ryan for every single job from Vice President to Speaker to President? Well, he’s young for a nationally known politician. He’s from Wisconsin, so he doesn’t carry any of the stigma that, say, a Texas politician does. And as we all know from 2012, he’s very into physical fitness.

It seems pretty clear that Ryan is not the most likable or charismatic guy. He didn’t provide any lift to the 2012 Romney ticket. But he does like to promote himself as the brains of the Republican Party. And he likes to present his budgets as thoughtful documents that mark a way forward for the party and the nation. Since far-right congressional Republicans don’t like Ryan’s budget, surely they must be sensible and bipartisan, right?

Not so much. In 2014, Ryan’s budget, if passed, would have privatized Medicare. His 2015 budget was full of the typical far-right folderol: repealing Obamacare, cutting funding for humanities and PBS, adding all sorts of new restrictions to social programs.

So if Ryan is a typical post-George W. Bush conservative—one with a Tea Partier’s obsession with cutting social programs back to a nub—why are Republicans so eager to toss him into any job opening that arises? Why, specifically, do they want Ryan to step into the presidential nomination slot, as opposed to Trump or Cruz?

The fact is, both Cruz and Trump are so far gone that they make Ryan look like a moderate centrist. Vox.com just published a little video game that I recommend you play. It begins with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in the holes created by their budgets. Cruz is down 8.6 trillion dollars, Trump is down 9.5 trillion. Then, the game gives you a series of government programs to cut. The goal is to balance Cruz’s and Trump’s budgets, and you learn very quickly that the only way to do that is to make a series of devastating cuts — eliminate Medicare entirely and you can resolve the budget holes, for example. (Although Trump has promised to not cut Medicare, but when did a little bit of reality ever get in the way of Donald Trump?)

Eventually, you understand that to balance their budgets, Cruz and Trump would have to rewrite the very idea of what America is and what America does. Ryan’s budget, at least, understands the basic point of Medicare—that letting poor people die in the street rather than provide them health care would be un-American—even if the way he wants to break Medicare up and leave it to the states is completely untenable. Ryan’s budget is extreme, but it’s nowhere near as extreme as the candidates the Republican Party is currently hurtling toward. Ryan is the closest thing to a rational man the party has left, even though he’d be a rabid libertarian in comparison with the Republicans of the 1980s and 1990s.

With the Republican Party creeping ever toward the extreme right side of the political spectrum, Ryan is in the uncomfortable position of pulling the reigns back on his party. But he surely must understand that stepping into the presidential nomination in a race where the majority of voters have identified Trump as their candidate of choice is a kamikaze mission. By backing out of the shadow race for the nomination today, Ryan is saving his own political future, even as he’s condemning the Republican Party’s immediate future to unlikable extremists. Ryan is gambling that after 2016, his party will lurch back to his (already extreme) position on the spectrum. It’s an uninformed bet, and it’s one that puts the future of this country in jeopardy.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.