In the daydreams of most Washington Republicans and nearly the entire political press corps, Donald Trump is stopped short of a majority on the first roll call vote at the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer. After a few deadlocked ballots on which neither Trump nor Ted Cruz can manage to win enough delegates to capture the nomination, the lights dim, thick smoke and loud music fill the air, and the arena doors open to reveal...Paul Ryan, riding in on a white steed to save the Republicans once again!
While this seems like wishful thinking more than a serious prediction, there is some logic at work. Trump will find it difficult to win over Republican delegates who are not already supporters of his campaign. Cruz also lacks broad appeal within the party and seems unlikely to be a strong general election candidate. And Ryan has already played the role of "The Only Man Who Can Unite the Party" once before: last fall in the House speakership race, when he was prevailed upon to succeed John Boehner after Kevin McCarthy's ascension from majority leader was blocked by the House Freedom Caucus.
Tonight, Politico tries to spoil everyone's fun by publishing "Why Ryan Won't Run," an article full of on-background denials from Ryan aides that their man has any interest in being the savior of his party at the national convention. The piece is full of arguments that are convincing enough—taking the nomination under such circumstances would divide more than unify a party in which the vast majority of voters supported either Trump or Cruz; assembling a national presidential campaign from a standing start in July would put him at a disadvantage against the Democratic opposition; running and losing this year would probably foreclose any future ambitions.
And yet: in the unlikely scenario that Ryan is presented with an opportunity to maneuver his way to the nomination, it seems to me that he should grab it without delay.
The main reason I draw this conclusion is that it sure looks like the speakership will eventually swallow him up just like it did John Boehner. Ryan has been speaker for less than six months, and he's already facing a serious rebellion over the budget from Boehner's old nemeses in the Freedom Caucus (a development that would be a much bigger story if the political world weren't fully distracted by the presidential race; in truth, the dumping of Boehner was itself a remarkable event that never really got the attention it deserved either). Republican regulars, perhaps including Ryan himself, may have assumed that their party's internal divisions would be abated after the installation of a new, more conservative speaker without Boehner's history of slighting the Freedom Caucusers. Instead, it looks as if the problem is structural, not personal—and now the problem is Ryan's.
The best-case scenario for a successful Ryan speakership requires a Republican victory in the 2016 presidential race. The new president would take responsibility for shaping the party's legislative agenda, and hard-right dissatisfaction and troublemaking would likely decline—or at least find a new target.
But if the Republicans are defeated in the presidential election—a nearly-certain scenario if Trump or Cruz wins the nomination—Ryan's job as speaker will only get harder. Republicans are likely to lose seats in the House this fall, reducing the party's margin of control, but these losses will not be suffered by the Freedom Caucus, whose members occupy safe deep-red districts. A newly-elected President (Hillary) Clinton will stimulate a gushing stream of conservative outrage that will inevitably splash onto the Republican leadership in Washington, as it did in the Obama years. Like Boehner before him, Ryan will be caught between making the compromises needed to govern and satisfying the incessant demands of his own partisan-ideological base. And if the election is a true landslide, the House Republican majority itself will be in jeopardy (though this remains a remote possibility at present).
Several of Politico's sources in the Ryan orbit appear convinced of the idea that four years of this madness would somehow leave Ryan in a good position to seek the presidency. That seems unlikely, if not outright delusional. In truth, Ryan will be lucky to still remain speaker at the end of the next president's term, and any further ambitions will probably be closed off completely. If Ryan really envisions himself in the White House, he shouldn't have accepted the speakership in the first place—but if he still wants the job, the time to run is now.