Sources close to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin tell National Review Online that the Budget Committee chairman considered a variety of factors this summer as he mulled a late-entry presidential campaign. This afternoon, he closed the door on a 2012 bid, choosing to remain in the House. “I sincerely appreciate the support from those eager to chart a brighter future for the next generation,” he said in a statement. “While humbled by the encouragement, I have not changed my mind, and therefore I am not seeking our party’s nomination for president.” Here are five reasons cited by Ryan’s circle that explain his decision.
He’d rather frame the debate. Ryan’s top priority for the 2012 presidential race has always been to help Republicans topple President Obama. He has repeatedly called the 2012 contest a “realignment election” in which the fate of both parties will be shaped for a generation. After authoring the House Republicans’ budget earlier this year, which drew him into the national spotlight, he felt comfortable making the national case for conservative reform. Ryan had hoped that Indiana governor Mitch Daniels would run. But that didn’t happen, and, after he saw the tepid response to his budget from leading GOP presidential contenders, Ryan began to consider making a run of his own in order to force an “adult conversation” about the looming debt crisis.
In the end, he decided that if he could amp up his political-action committee in early primary states and make more of an effort to frame the 2012 debate inside and outside the Beltway, then he could achieve many of his most important objectives without having to launch a full-scale presidential campaign. Look for him to take a higher profile in coming weeks.
He wasn’t enthused. In one important respect, there was never much chance of a Ryan campaign, sources say, because Ryan was rarely enthusiastic about the prospect. Out of respect to his many supporters, including his longtime mentor Bill Bennett, Ryan considered the advice of political operatives, friends, and colleagues — but never let himself get carried away. As Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard has reported, he did take meetings with top GOP consultants, including Frank Luntz, but Ryan was more interested in getting a sense of the field and Republican thinking than in gauging his own chances. His wife, Janna, and his young children were reportedly supportive of his running for the nomination, but had reservations about his once more becoming a national target for the Left. In a phone call this afternoon, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson said that he “understood [Ryan’s] reasons” for the decision. “He would have been the best candidate, by far,” Thompson said. “I encouraged him to run. He’ll be a contender for many years to come.”
He did not want to play catch up. Ryan may have tempered his presidential ambitions this afternoon, with much of the decision being based on personal and House considerations. But Ryan did take a glance at the early primary states and saw leading, big-name candidates already roosting in Granite State hamlets and outside Iowa cornfields. He does have a political-action committee, but even that has nowhere near the size or power of, say, Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund. Ryan, if he had entered the race, would have had to start from scratch. That would mean building an organizational infrastructure and a political team while attending to a packed schedule of debates and other 2012 events. While he was getting started, his competitors would be raising funds — and probably not inclined to play softball with the upstart. Ryan is said to have been more than ready to engage certain candidates, but he was not interested in playing catch-up on the ground. His confidants know that he is at his best when he is sparring about ideas, not making cold calls to activists and bundlers.
He did not want to discredit the cause. One of Ryan’s chief concerns all along was whether an unsuccessful presidential campaign would undermine the GOP’s fiscal hawks. After the bruising spring budget battle, he felt that he had finally convinced the party to start moving in the right direction. Ryan is young, and he could recover from a failed race, but he worried that his fiscal agenda might end up politically discredited should a Ryan 2012 campaign come to an inglorious end in the snows of New Hampshire or the hills of South Carolina. “As far as I am concerned, my answer has not changed,” he told NRO this summer. “I feel like I am in a good place where I am right now. I have a young family, and I can balance that and the cause, and make a big difference where I am.”
There is no reason to rush. Ryan 2012 was always a pipe dream for his diehard supporters, sources acknowledge. The real play for Ryan, they say, is to continue to lead in the House, shaking up the chamber’s spending ways and nudging the presidential field in the right direction. And while he won’t be running for president this time, his supporters hope that Ryan’s high profile on fiscal issues will make the Wisconsinite a top candidate for the vice-presidential nomination. Being tapped for the VP spot, or even being a serious contender, would strengthen Ryan’s position in Congress as well as in any potential 2016 presidential field. If the Republican wins in 2012, Ryan might end up in the Cabinet. If he stays in the House, he probably will rise to the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship over time. His supporters may be disappointed that he won’t make a run for the presidential nomination this time, but Paul Ryan has more than one way to influence the country’s direction on the issues he cares about most.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.