Paul Ryan is no dummy. After watching John Boehner bail out of the speakership in the middle of a congressional session and second-in-command Kevin McCarthy abruptly fail in his bid to succeed him—in both cases, due primarily to opposition from the bloc of conservative purists known as the House Freedom Caucus—Ryan's immediate instinctive response to suggestions that he run for speaker himself was a rousing "no thanks." Ryan appeared to understand all too well that Boehner's successor, no matter how initially well-liked and unimpeachably conservative in reputation, would soon become the target of unrelenting criticism from within the Republican Party for carrying out the routine tasks (negotiating budget agreements with Obama, preventing default on the national debt) required to keep the government functioning without crisis. His refusal to abandon his post atop the House Ways and Means Committee—along with, in all likelihood, any future ambition to seek the presidency—in order to subject himself to such treatment was not only understandable, but revealed a respectable degree of political sense.
Over the past two weeks, Ryan has been deluged with pleas from fellow Republicans, both within and outside the House (and including Boehner himself), to reconsider his position. Yesterday, he softened a bit, telling the House Republican Conference that he would accept the speakership if four conditions were met:
1. He would play the role of a "visionary" on behalf of a party that advanced its own positive policy agenda. (Presumably, this means that he would be a big-picture speaker who left the care-and-feeding-of-members responsibilities to the rest of the Republican leadership team.)
2. The House would change its rules, in part to make it more difficult for a majority of members to unseat a speaker in the middle of a term.
3. He would be guaranteed a clear path to the speakership without organized opposition from within the Republican conference.
4. He would concentrate on strategy and media visibility while shouldering less of the fundraising duties traditionally borne by the speaker, in order to spend more time with his young children.
By normal political standards, these are fairly stringent demands to make in order to accept a powerful and prestigious office. Of course, these are not ordinary times. Nearly the entire Washington community, including most Republicans, now views Ryan as the indispensable man—the only person able to steer the House GOP, and with it the entire Congress, away from an imminent governing disaster. According to this now-prevalent perspective, Ryan's demands are barely demands at all; they are sensible, even necessary, and—in the case of his stated desire to tend the home fires with his family instead of jetting around the country every weekend to attend fat-cat fundraisers—heartwarmingly admirable.
But let's be clear: Ryan is proposing an old-fashioned political deal from a position of perceived strength—and, as in many negotiations, his strength is a function of his willingness to walk away from the table. In exchange for the above numbered concessions, which both increase the power and ease the burdens of the speakership, he is offering his party the following: himself. Most Republicans, increasingly desperate, will gladly agree to such a trade. Yet it is less immediately apparent why Republicans who don't necessarily view Ryan as the lone savior of the GOP—presumably including most of the Freedom Caucus—would commit to this arrangement (which would deprive the purist faction of its primary procedural leverage) rather than explore alternative speaker candidates. After all, the usual pattern is for the purists to force the party to creep up to the edge of chaos (and even fall over the edge, as in the 2013 shutdown) in order to convince Tea Party activists and other supporters of their commitment to conservative principles.
Ryan is probably assuming that his conditions will not be met. Many Republicans have been telling him that he had a responsibility to save his party; if his terms are not accepted, he will be able to say that he tried but was blocked by the unreasonable Freedom Caucus (whose members seem quite aware that they are being set up to take the blame if Ryan backs out). Ryan is not averse to portraying himself in heroic terms. He told reporters last night that "My biggest worry is the consequence of not stepping up, of having my own kids ask me, 'When the stakes were so high, why didn't you do all that you could do? Why didn't you stand and fight for my future when you had a chance to do so?'" However, the fact that Ryan is only willing to take on such a supposedly crucial fight after winning substantial personal accommodations strongly suggests that he'd still much rather let somebody else lead the charge.