Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is the chairman of the immensely powerful House Ways and Means Committee, he was the vice presidential nominee for Republicans in 2012 and now he’s the protagonist in an unprecedented campaign by a large majority of House Republicans to draft him for Speaker.
The stakes in the Speaker decision are enormous. The GOP has begun a period of dramatic transition and upheaval with a profound intraparty debate about the nature and future of the Republican Party and Congress.
When Ryan says he does not want to be Speaker, he means it. The chairmanship of the most powerful committee in either house of Congress is the dream job for the Wisconsin lawmaker, like the job of secretary of State is the dream job for John Kerry — except perhaps for the presidency.
Yet the intense effort by many House Republicans to draft Ryan for Speaker is a powerful movement born of desperation and aspiration.
While I rarely offer advice to Republican leaders, I have worked for House Democratic leaders under different Speakers, beginning with the legendary Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), and have sat in the room where Ryan would sit if he were to become Speaker.
My advice to Ryan would be to pursue a strategy akin to that of Henry Clay, the greatest Speaker in the history of the House, who Lincoln called his “ideal of a great man.” A non-negotiable precondition for his becoming Speaker would be that 218 House Republicans agree that the position is a post designed to govern and not to ineffectively preside over a banana republic legislature where any faction pursues a strategy of institutional mass destruction.
In a Ryan Speakership, he would say in this Henry Clay strategy, all GOP factions would be given fair voice, but the Speakership must include negotiating in good faith with House Democrats, Senate leaders of both parties, President Obama and whomever his successor may be.
A minority of House Republicans would further destroy the authority of the Speaker, which has already been significantly destroyed. Campaigns of personal destruction previously employed against Democrats are now aimed against their own leaders and threaten to become an all-out war against the authority of congressional leaders and the governing capability of the House itself. According to RealClearPolitics, public disapproval of Congress has risen to more than three-fourths of Americans, which is profoundly destructive to Congress and the nation.
Ryan and I agree on few great issues, but we share a devotion to the Green Bay Packers. The Packers would never win one game if on every play their offensive line turned to sack their great quarterback, Aaron Rodgers!
Ryan need not be a powerful Speaker in the tradition of Tip O’Neill, but he should not accept a lobotomized post plagued by constant internecine warfare that would guarantee perpetual government dysfunction and even greater public contempt for Congress.
Ryan should assert that his Speakership would stand for the institutional integrity of the House that is essential to American democracy and accepted by a majority of his conference, the Congress and the American people. If 218 House Republicans will not accept this, he would say, they should look elsewhere to name a toothless Speaker to preside over a vastly unpopular Congress of ideological vendettas and institutional mass destruction.
What I suggest is high-stakes poker for a man who is rightly thrilled by the chairmanship he now holds and is being drafted for a position he does not want. But history teaches that moments of greatness are thrust upon leaders, and while Ryan did not seek it, this moment is his.
If Ryan takes a bold stand against the dysfunction that most Americans deplore, and in favor of the kind of Congress the founding fathers envisioned, he would be loudly applauded by most Americans. He would assume a Speaker’s job worth having and make his mark in history. Or he could remain as a nationally admired chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a worthy consolation prize indeed.