National Opinions

Without Paul Ryan in speaker's race, House Republicans lack a way forward

Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan keeps ruling himself out as the next speaker of the House. He keeps doing it because he really doesn't want the job, at least right now. He keeps having to do it because he's the most logical choice for it.

House Republicans are deeply divided. Most of them have backed John Boehner, the current speaker, and probably would have backed Kevin McCarthy, his lieutenant. That gave them a majority of the majority in the House.

But they could not be assured of a majority of the whole House. A minority of House Republicans thinks the Republican leaders have been too timid, refusing to let the government shut down in order to fight President Barack Obama's immigration orders, or taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

This minority was large enough to make Boehner's speakership a constant trial, which contributed to his decision to retire. It was large enough, as well, to make it unclear that McCarthy could get the necessary 218 votes to be speaker or that he could be a successful one.

When McCarthy left the race Thursday, Ryan — the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012 — again said he would not run in his place. He likes tax and trade policy, the business of his committee. He knows full well how difficult it would be to keep House Republicans in some semblance of unity. His children are young enough that he cannot relish the thought of flying around the country to raise money for Republican congressmen.

But he was still the name on a lot of Republicans' lips. Nobody thinks Ryan could make the divisions among House Republicans disappear. If he were speaker, some Republicans would still want to engage in budget and debt-ceiling brinkmanship to extract concessions from President Obama, and more of them would think that a foolhardy strategy.

But Ryan is respected by most people on both sides of the divide. Many of the Republicans who were against Boehner and McCarthy would listen to him, and trust him to listen to them. They sometimes disagree with him, but they trust that he is in politics because of conservative ideas. No other House Republican has the same reservoir of goodwill. No other House Republican is considered as good a spokesman on such politically perilous issues as entitlement reform.

That's why, with him absent from the race, Republicans have no clear path forward. And it's why try as he might to rule himself out, Ryan is going to keep hearing calls for him to take a job he does not want.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.