Politics & Policy

Wake Up from the White-Knight Fever Dreams

(Win McNamee/Getty)

Spoiler alert: Paul Ryan is not going to be the Republican nominee. At least not in 2016. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s a fantasy, and a counterproductive one at that.

Don’t get me wrong — this is not a value judgment on the merits of Paul Ryan, or even the current field, for that matter. Speaker Ryan is an articulate voice for conservative principles and among the most compelling messengers we have in the party today. Perhaps a fruitful speakership can springboard him to bigger things in 2020 or beyond. But to channel Ryan himself, to be the president you have to run for president.

In fairness, a Ryan nomination makes more sense than the party’s turning its weary eyes to John Kasich. With all due respect to self-styled Little Engine That Can, it’s easier to justify a white knight than it is to hand the nomination to the party guest who wouldn’t leave. But both scenarios rely on misguided assumptions about both the mood of the party and the composition of the convention electorate.

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For all of the speaker’s strengths, it seems unlikely that the convention hall would share the Beltway’s giddy enthusiasm for a Ryan candidacy. And while he remains nominally above water, Ryan’s favorability took a sudden and significant hit after he reluctantly took the gavel, dropping from 69 percent to 46 percent, according to a December 2015 YouGov poll. The onslaught from conservative radio and blogs started the moment Ryan emerged as John Boehner’s heir apparent, and his mop-up job shepherding through the much-maligned omnibus bill appears to have taken its political toll. Which is to say that parachuting him in on the fourth ballot at the convention would hardly be a panacea and might only complicate an already messy dynamic.

In a vacuum, the persistent Draft Ryan murmurs could be written off as nothing more than harmless Beltway wish-casting, the sort of idle gossip that rockets from lunch at the 116 Club to the bar at Bobby Van’s Grill before ending up in a Politico blind item the next morning. Unfortunately, the rumors, however baseless, play directly into the fever dreams of a paranoid and increasingly hostile subset of the GOP base. And worse, those reportedly floating such a bid are the very avatars of “Establishment” bogeymen. Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers conspiring to “steal” the nomination might sound silly, but in a cycle where the front-runner and his minions are openly alleging voter fraud, it’s just par for the course. While it might be only Politico Playbook readers and Breitbart commenters who are credulously entertaining this idea, it perpetuates an unhealthy feedback loop of factional delusion.

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Nearly a decade of intra-party tensions steeped in bad faith and laced with utter contempt have created a toxic dynamic that belies the GOP’s outward electoral successes in recent years. So it seems presumptuous to expect that the rank and file would gamely fall in line behind an “electable” ringer selected over the wishes of two-thirds of GOP primary voters. The very notion ignores the considerable scar tissue that built up during the painful losses of McCain and Romney. It’s hard enough to keep the fraying Republican coalition together after the tumult of the last eight years without validating otherwise baseless fears and dubious revisionism.

#share#Moreover, electability is overrated insofar as it comes at the expense of the GOP base. John Kasich might have more crossover appeal — the polls certainly seem to think so — but in the unlikely event that he snagged the nomination, he’d spend the general election trying to lock down a restless right flank. A drafted Ryan would face similar headwinds. Sure, the presence of a veritable Democrat supervillain in Hillary Rodham Clinton would help compensate for a lack of enthusiasm, but if you were also trying to stanch the bleeding from a contested convention, that would hardly be sufficient.

To draft Ryan would be to send him into a hopeless salvage job, with down-ballot triage as the most realistic goal.

Of course it is unlikely come to that. If Donald Trump falls short on the first ballot, which seems entirely plausible at this point, his standing will only erode from there as previously bound delegations are gradually freed from their candidate-based obligations. If you don’t think Cruz can cobble together a second- or third-ballot majority, you haven’t been paying attention to what he has been doing organizationally, outflanking and outfoxing Trump’s operation at every turn. While the Cruz campaign has long feigned anxiety over an open convention, playing into those same fears of an Establishment swindle, they have actually been planning and preparing for a Cleveland floor fight since before Trump was even in the race. This is a briar patch Cruz would love to be thrown into. As reviled as he might be in D.C., the delegates poised to descend on Cleveland are his people, and an open convention would be his to lose.

#related#The underrated strength of Ted Cruz is that his conservative-movement bona fides can salve convention wounds while affording him a longer general-election leash. The reservoir of trust he has built with the base, “Lyin’ Ted” label notwithstanding, offsets many of his potential liabilities. Cruz’s stature among the grassroots is a crucial consolation, especially given that Trump is unlikely to go away quietly.

If you are truly interested in seeing a Paul Ryan presidency one day, it seems foolish to conscript him into a situation where he would be set up to fail. To draft Ryan would be to send him into a hopeless salvage job, with down-ballot triage as the most realistic goal. And even in the intermediate term, it’s unclear that you can sell a Ryan or a Rubio or any other Establishment-tinged candidate unless and until you have indulged the base. In other words, if the top two candidates fail get over the 1,237-delegate hump, we’re going to have a mess on our hands, with or without Speaker Ryan’s help. So for all those pining for a white knight, it’s time to look around. If you want to have a party when the dust settles, you might have to ride this thing out with Ted Cruz.

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