For cripes sake. I know he has to deny this as a matter of basic politeness towards Ryan, but not only is he obviously weighing the possibility that he’ll become Speaker, it’d be irresponsible if he weren’t. If the House breaks down because no one fears defying Ryan anymore, an early leadership change really might be in the offing. McCarthy will need to be ready and to have 218 votes lined up. Why are his spokesmen getting snotty with Weekly Standard reporters for mentioning a reality so obvious that it barely qualifies as “news”?

McCarthy’s buddy, Mick Mulvaney, openly admitted that they’d discussed him becoming Speaker a few days ago:

At a conference in Colorado sponsored by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Fox News host Bret Baier asked Mulvaney what he thought of the idea that Ryan should step down and allow his likely successor, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to become speaker this year.

“I’ve talked with Kevin about this privately but not as much publicly,” Mulvaney replied. “Wouldn’t it be great to force a Democrat running in a tight race to have to put up or shut up about voting for Nancy Pelosi eight weeks before an election? That’s a really, really good vote for us to force if we can figure out how to do it.”

The Pelosi rationale in McCarthy’s thinking came up this weekend, but as it turns out, it’s overblown:

I think there’s some value in forcing Democrats to choke on a “Pelosi or fresh blood?” vote ahead of the midterms, if only to force another round of that debate within their party, but obviously McCarthy and Mulvaney are less interested in the idea of Ryan stepping down because of the opportunity it presents for hijinks at the Dems’ expense than because it would make McCarthy the most powerful man in the House. The Standard claims no fewer than nine different sources who say he’s been quietly discussing this with people and other outlets like Politico have heard rumblings as well. It may even be that McCarthy’s allies are leaking the details to conservative publications deliberately as a trial balloon, to see how the prospect of an early exit for Ryan will be received. Populist sites would cheer the sudden demise of a longtime Trump frenemy like Ryan, knowing that the chummier McCarthy is on tap, but what about more centrist sites like the Standard? Is there so much residual goodwill left for Ryan among establishmentarians that any “soft coup” effort by McCarthy would earn him a backlash?

I doubt it. If Speaker McCarthy can get something meaningful passed that might improve the GOP’s odds of holding the House this fall, that’s reason enough to hand Ryan his gold watch early and usher him to the door, as ignominious as a departure on someone else’s timetable might be. But … what is McCarthy going to pass than Ryan can’t? Would the farm bill have gotten through? Is there any reason to think McCarthy would have more luck brokering the eternally elusive immigration compromise? In fact, McCarthy reportedly thinks the party shouldn’t go near immigration right now with elections looming for fear that it’ll alienate Republican base voters. (Which is almost certainly correct.) It may be less a matter of him being able to pass bills that Ryan can’t than Ryan being willing to pass bills that McCarthy wouldn’t.

Either way, don’t let McCarthy’s denials fool you about pressure building on Ryan to exit. “Another major misstep could really start a spiral,” said a senior Republican aide to Axios. “Moderates are showing a new willingness to defy leadership, so we are tiptoeing into uncharted waters. Don’t think [the farm bill’s failure] is fatal by any means, but it could be the kindling to start a bigger fire.” The knives are also out at Politico:

“The conference is in open warfare. Paul has run out of juice,” said a senior Republican lawmaker who wants a speaker vote to happen soon and requested anonymity to speak frankly. “It became clear on Friday that it’s time to let go.”

Ryan allies argue that pushing him out wouldn’t solve the GOP’s internal problems. Plus, Republicans from all camps agree that McCarthy currently wouldn’t have 218 votes to be speaker — mainly because he hasn’t yet cut a deal with Freedom Caucus members for their votes.

That last part is key. When McCarthy says he doesn’t want Ryan out, he’s technically telling the truth — he may not want Ryan out *right now* since, without 218 votes in his pocket, he’s at risk of being passed over as Speaker for a compromise candidate between the moderate and conservative factions, like, say, Steve Scalise. He needs a little time to work on the Freedom Caucus. And needless to say, the whispers of him scheming to supplant Ryan before Ryan’s ready to go can only alienate some of Ryan’s friends within the caucus.

Here’s Ryan being asked about the leadership drama this morning. Why would you want an intraparty battle royal before the midterms, he wonders?