Sometimes duty calls.
Paul Ryan long has told people that he has no interest in being speaker of the House, and he has been completely sincere. He wants to be a legislator and truly prizes his perch as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he can craft tax and entitlement legislation that he could get signed into law if a Republican is elected president next year.
House Republicans are angrily divided, and no faction is blameless. Too many Republicans have been content with an agenda that merely attempts to get business done on time, and to please business lobbies. (Those lobbies are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but conservatism is not reducible to their preferences.) Too many other Republicans think that leadership consists of unrealistic demands combined with strong rhetoric.
More than any other prominent House Republican, Ryan has pushed back against both tendencies. He has instead outlined a practical agenda and done the hard work of building support for it from all corners of the party. Although he has sided with leadership in tactical disputes in recent years, he has consistently pushed the envelope on substance, understanding that the party needs a serious policy agenda to counter that of the Left. He is a knowledgeable and effective defender of conservative policy. Sometimes we think he is wrong on both substantive and tactical matters, but we never doubt that he is wrong for the right reasons. For these reasons, Ryan is trusted by most House Republicans, whatever their opinion of the Boehner era.
For Ryan to lead House Republicans would require some accommodations. He would have to commit to keeping immigration legislation that most Republicans oppose off the floor, whatever his own opinion of it. He would have to receive assurances from many of the Republicans who vexed Boehner that they will stay with the party on procedural votes, in return for assurances that he will not ride roughshod over them. And with preteens at home, Ryan would surely want to remold the responsibilities of the speakership to involve less fundraising travel.
With those provisos, though, Ryan ought to run for speaker, and his colleagues ought to support him. To be an effective force in moving public policy in a conservative direction, House Republicans need both unity and direction. Ryan can supply more of each than they have had for some time.
Ryan is understandably chary to potentially take on an office that made John Boehner so miserable. But the stakes are larger than his qualms.