Let’s rephrase a famous line from The Godfather: Paul Ryan is making an offer they might refuse.
And if they do refuse, Ryan would be fine with that. He has no burning need to be House Speaker. Given the fissures inside the Republican party, he knows it’s the worst job in politics. He’d prefer not to spend the next few years battling the right-wing loons who inexplicably think they have a divine right to run the asylum. The ’12 veep nominee doesn’t want to be the next poster boy for bad Republican governance and thus flush his presidential ambitions down the drain.
Which is why, at a House Republican meeting last night, he set the bar very high. He said that he’d “reluctantly” take the job that nobody else in the chaotic caucus seems capable of taking – but only if all the party factions march in unison to his tune. In his words, “If I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve.”
Translation: “If the toddlers are going to continue to throw my-way-or-the-highway tantrums, get somebody else.”
John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy have already become casualties of the so-called Freedom Caucus, the rump cadre of red-district reactionaries who equate compromise with surrender. Ryan has no interest in joining Boehner and McCarthy on the pyre. As he reportedly said last night – and this quote is real – “I don’t want to be the third log on the bonfire.” And in a reference to the backstage intrigue that has made the House virtually ungovernable, he said: “I’m willing to take arrows in the chest, but not in the back.”
I doubt that this House melodrama is of much interest to the average citizen – today, if you asked someone about Paul Ryan, he or she might think you were talking about a guy on the Mets – but nevertheless, it is an apt metaphor for the current Republican dysfunction, for a party at war with itself.
The big problem is that Ryan needs Freedom Caucus votes in order to get elected Speaker, but the Freedom gang has made non-negotiable demands that Ryan refuses to accept. The gang says they won’t support Ryan unless he agrees in advance to reduce the Speaker’s power, and to block all immigration reform. They’re also demanding that Ryan refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless it’s linked to budget cuts for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Ryan is saying no to all that. In his words, he’s not going to handcuff himself to “one group,” especially a group that’s a minority of the Republican membership (roughly 40 out of 247). On the contrary, he wants the Freedom gang to accept his non-negotiable demands – most notably, he wants rule changes that would make it harder to oust him from the Speakership. The Freedom gang isn’t wild about ceding to that precondition.
And the gang doesn’t like Ryan much anyway. Hard as it may be to believe – given Ryan’s longstanding conservative credentials, especially his ongoing attempts to rip holes in the federal safety net – the gang and its friends in the conservative entertainment complex have been savaging Ryan for weeks, claiming that he’s not conservative enough (?!). Every once in awhile, Ryan has forged compromises with Democrats – like in 2013, when he brokered a two-year budget agreement with Democratic Senator Patty Murray – and that’s anathema inside the extremist bubble. Ryan has also voted to keep the government operating (horrors!) and to raise the debt ceiling (a blasphemous move that enables Uncle Sam to pay his bills). He also said two years ago, on the issue of immigration, that “earned legalization is an issue I think the House can and will deal with” – which, to the Freedom gang, is akin to burning the American flag.
And this morning, he’s being savaged anew on his right flank for his preconditions. Radio host Laura Ingraham is mocking him as “Emperor Ryan.” The Drudge Report is jeering, “King Paul: Pledge Your Allegiance to Me.” Erick Erickson says, “Paul Ryan Wants House Conservatives to Sign Their Own Death Warrant.” And various Freedom Caucusers say that Ryan’s take-it-or-leave-it ‘tude is outrageous.
Ryan’s House defenders – the people who have an interest in the realities of governing – are just as virulent about the bomb-throwers. Congressman Tom Cole, a longtime player, said the other day: “Anyone who attacks Paul Ryan as being insufficiently conservative is either woefully misinformed or maliciously destructive….His critics are not true conservatives. They are radical populists who neither understand nor accept the institutions, procedures and traditions that are the basis of constitutional governance.” True that.
For their own sake, and to spare themselves further national political embarrassment, House Republicans would probably be wise to cobble together some semblance of unity. Maybe Ryan and the Freedom Caucus can bond somehow – in the spirit of another Godfather maxim, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” If not, then hey, it’s their funeral.
Meanwhile, our other Hamlet announced today that he won’t join the presidential race. Did I call it, or what?
What I wrote back on Aug. 4: “‘Biden is talking to friends’ is about as newsworthy as ‘dog bites man.’ This is what politicians do, they game out scenarios. Joe Biden has been ‘talking to friends’ about his ambition since the era of videocassettes. But talking about it is a far cry from doing it. If we are to judge Biden not by what he says in private, but instead by what he does in public, the inescapable conclusion is that he’s taking a pass.”