There’s just no way. History will observe that the most striking thing about Ryan’s career, which made him the most powerful man in his party for a few years, the second-most powerful for a few more, and the vice-presidential nominee, is that he achieved all of it despite having no real constituency. Who are the “Paul Ryan voters” out there? The base is populist and protectionist and loathes Ryan as a libertarian-ish squish on the borders. Senior citizens, a key GOP bloc, are terrified of entitlement reform. Republican “intellectuals” are disappointed in him for not being harder on Trump and for presiding over a new orgy of federal spending after he devoted years to lecturing the public about reining in government. The six remaining conservatives in America might support him for president. Beyond that, who?
Someone who *should* be a quintessential Ryan supporter is Phil Klein of the Washington Examiner. Klein’s a fiscal hawk who’s spent the last decade pounding the table about cleaning up the ObamaCare mess and getting serious about the debt crisis while there’s time to avert it. Is he gung ho for Ryan 2024? He … is not:
Was sacrificing principles to embrace Trump ultimately worth it for the sugar high of tax cuts and increased military spending? While conservatives may want both policies, Ryan knows better than anybody that neither of these achievements will be sustainable without the passage of entitlement reform — which is much harder work…
In the final analysis, then, the cynic has to wonder where genuine spending reform ranks in Ryan’s hierarchy of beliefs, relative to tax cuts, military spending, and short-term Republican political calculations. The cynical view of Ryan has always been that his high-minded rhetoric on debts was always empty, as evidenced by the fact that in practice, he consistently voted to increase spending while lowering taxes. Having announced he was retiring from Congress without pursuing entitlement reform any further will only bolster the cynical view, and in the process, further undermine the claim of Republicans as the party of limited government and fiscal restraint. This, in turn, will likely mean that future fiscal battles will be fought on the terms of those who want to raise taxes to support even larger government.
Democrats also hate Ryan, of course. They’ve always hated his small-government ambitions but they’ve developed added contempt for him in recent years for being vague on the details of how he would achieve them. His chummy relationship with Trump was the last straw, though. Ron Brownstein of the Atlantic captures the liberal view of Ryan well:
No one in the GOP was better equipped, by position and disposition alike, to resist Trump’s racially infused, insular nationalism, or to define a more inclusive competing vision for the party. Instead, Ryan chose to tolerate both Trump’s personal excesses and his racially polarizing words and deeds as the price worth paying to advance Ryan’s own top priorities: cutting spending; regulations; and above all, taxes. The result was that Ryan, more than any other prominent Republican, personified the devil’s bargain the GOP has signed with Trump. And his departure crystallizes the difficult choices Republicans face as Trump redefines the party in his belligerent image…
Ryan more than any other Republican paved the path for this subjugation to Trump—if only because he provided the most viable rallying point for an alternative, optimistic, inclusive vision and yet chose to submit. He leaves the party lashed to a volatile, impulsive leader who is systematically stamping it as a vehicle for white racial resentment, even as the nation grows kaleidoscopically more diverse.
Despite his personal likability, candidate Ryan would have big trouble trying to win crossover votes if he somehow ended up with the GOP nomination.
Even so, I think he’ll remain vaguely “in the mix” of potential future nominees purely by dint of name recognition and his obvious smarts. There’s a slice of the conservative intelligentsia that seems convinced, for reasons that escape me, that the Trump era will birth a conservative renaissance. The theory, I guess, is that Trump will end up being such a trainwreck as president that right-wingers will have no choice but to realize that principled conservatism is the One True Path and that it’s time to retrench. The Bush presidency ended pretty badly, though, and yet the conservative intelligentsia kept on trucking with its ideology, dismissing Dubya as either an aberration in conservative governance or not meaningfully a conservative at all. If populists and nationalists are left holding the bag for a ruinous Trump presidency, presumably they’ll react the same way. It’s not the ideology that’s wrong. We just need a better exemplar of it, someone who’s even more of an authoritarian strongman and can really get things done.
I don’t know what that candidate might look like, God help us. But I know it won’t look like Paul Ryan.
Ryan doesn’t even want to run for office anymore, I’d bet. He’s on his way out of the most thankless job in Washington, having spent the last decade working with one president who agreed with him on nothing and another who’s a loose cannon. He’s had nothing but frustration for 10 years. If you offered him the presidency tomorrow, he’d probably pause a moment to reflect on how much more frustrating it’d be to hold that office and still not get anything useful done and say “to hell with it.” He has a very cushy life lined up as a powerful lobbyist instead. If you’re desperate to have him back in office, though, watch the Senate races in Wisconsin. He’d be a natural to replace Ron Johnson on the ballot in 2022 if Johnson doesn’t run again or to challenge Tammy Baldwin in 2024 if the climate favors Republicans. He’s a very formidable candidate back home because of his fame and tremendous fundraising capabilities. I just don’t see a national future given the GOP’s trajectory.