Putting a Ryan Presidential Run in Context

by Christian Schneider

Even with party higher-ups investigating the possibility of his nomination, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan still seems like a long shot for president. And not just because he keeps saying things like “I am not running for president.”

In a historical context, a Ryan candidacy would be a stark outlier. Take his age. In recent history, very few GOP presidential candidates have paid full price at Denny’s. The Republican party’s nominees have included John McCain (72), Bob Dole (73), George H.W. Bush (64), Ronald Reagan (69), and Gerald Ford (63.) George W. Bush was the young pup of the group at 54 years old in 2000.

Ryan, at age 41, is three months younger than Brett Favre. It’s hard to think of someone else who rose to prominence within the Republican party at such a young age. Perhaps the closest match would be Richard Nixon, who spent six years in the House and Senate before being added to Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952, at the age of 39.

Like Ryan, the young Nixon rode a single issue into the national spotlight — in Nixon’s case, it was his investigations into the Alger Hiss spy case on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Nixon broke the Hiss case wide open when he discovered that Whittaker Chambers had been hiding microfilm of secret documents in a pumpkin. (When I mentioned this comparison to Ryan personally, he smiled and politely asked if I could perhaps find a different example. Somehow I don’t think my second pick, Dan Quayle, would work for him, either.)

It’s not merely Ryan’s age that would be an anomaly. He would be running as a member of the House of Representatives, which has traditionally been a graveyard for presidential candidates. In America’s history, only Henry Clay (1824), James A. Garfield (1880), and John Anderson (1980) ran for president in the general election as sitting House members. And, as everyone knows, before 2008, no member of Congress, not even a senator, had been elected since John Kennedy in 1960. Of course, we live in strange times — our current president broke the 48-year streak of senators being snubbed by the voters. (And I think I read something on the Internet about him also being African-American.)

Others have mentioned Ryan as a potential candidate for vice president — a position Ryan has been less interested in expressing his lack of interest in. But any GOP ticket with Ryan as VP would be what is traditionally called a “kangaroo ticket” — with all the strength in the rear. If the Republican candidate were to lose in 2012, Ryan would be out of Congress. Plus, even in victory, who would want to take the House’s brightest policy nerd and stick him on a shelf to collect dust for eight years?

So, for now, anything goes. The current GOP frontrunner is a reality show star who swears at crowds in public and wears a golden retriever on his head. Are we really in any position to start ruling people out?

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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